Dream Volunteers

Amy.Campbell's picture

Asking in order to receive is not a new concept. Whether the approach is based in religion or follows as outlined in pop culture books, the idea runs something like this: through the power of positive thinking, the thinker influences the outcome. No matter how outlandish or seemingly unattainable your desire, this philosophy states, all you have to do is ask and you will receive it. And sometimes, fulfilling your biggest dreams really is as simple as that.

My library dreams are not outlandish or wholly unattainable, but they do often lie outside my time and budget constraints as well as my own knowledge and skill. One of these dreams for the past few months has been to launch an adult literacy program at my library. I don’t have a background in literacy or any qualifications in teaching. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have the time in my daily schedule to do any tutoring myself. Like all public librarians, however, I am poised perfectly to see the needs of my community and to devise ways for the library to meet those needs. For me, this meant launching a volunteer-based tutoring program. When I asked for them through VolunteerMatch, I received the volunteers who do have literacy and teaching backgrounds.

I started in September with the goal of establishing a print literacy program. There are a few places that offer adult literacy instruction in Pocatello, but the public library has not been one of them. People do naturally drift to the library when thinking of literacy, however, so we often receive inquiries about what programs we offer. Always a little embarrassed to admit that we didn’t have any literacy programs for adults, my embarrassment only increased when the patron would occasionally express surprise at this lack of what he or she expected to be part of our core services, as though the patron had found out my guilty secret. It was like working in a restaurant and having to confess that the daily special was not and in fact never had been available. This was clearly a gap that needed to be closed, but I could do little to close it alone.

Enter VolunteerMatch. I posted a request for print literacy tutors on the VolunteerMatch website and quickly connected with a woman named Pam. With a strong background in literacy and language instruction and an eagerness to share her time and expertise, Pam immediately became the backbone of the library’s language and literacy tutoring. We are still gathering learners and recruiting volunteers, but we have made enough strides together over the six weeks to begin to develop mission and vision statements and a handbook for what our dream tutoring program will be. And our dream continues getting bigger.

The dream began to expand almost accidentally when I called a local agency to let them know about the library’s new literacy tutoring program. The agency provided GED education and, I thought, our literacy tutoring would help their learners who wanted extra reading instruction. I learned from this phone call, however, that the agency no longer provides tutoring because of budget cuts. The director was excited to learn about the literacy tutoring, but she commented in passing that what people really wanted and needed was math assistance.

As librarians, our ears are always tuned to catch these comments made in passing because they often reveal what our community is looking for. As I continued to promote the library’s literacy tutoring, the director’s comment about the need for math tutoring echoed in my mind. I created and posted a request on VolunteerMatch for math tutors, just to see what might happen. Only two weeks later, I now have three math volunteers with pending applications and a regular Monday evening tutor. We are well on our way to our goal of providing all levels of math tutoring every evening and on Saturday mornings.   

The ease with which I recruited math volunteers encouraged me to dream more boldly and create a triangle of literacy at my library: language, math, and digital tutoring make up the three sides of this literacy triangle. In truth, I have coordinated volunteers to teach digital literacy for years at the library. Adding digital literacy as the third side of the literacy triangle was, I thought, nothing more than simply aligning a previously independent project, but folding these three kinds of literacy together unexpectedly strengthened each program. Tutors are excited to hear that they are participating in a program whose reach goes beyond one particular field, and our learners are eagerly populating time slots in two or three subjects.

Over the past year, volunteers donated about 80 hours a month to my department. For a department that has four full-time and one part-time staff, donated labor that is the equivalent of another part-time staff position each month is significant. The volunteer literacy tutors have already caused that number to jump by about 20 hours a month, and when the literacy triangle is fully up and running, it will skyrocket. More importantly, volunteers have allowed me to dream up new programs, expand current programs, and take it all beyond my library walls out into my community. Volunteers can help us leap beyond our current reality of limited time and constrictive budgets to help all members of our community. And isn’t that at the heart of all our librarian dreams?