Retired IBM senior project manager and engineer Dick Bliss saw an ad in the newspaper one day and decided to become a tutor for the Craven Literary Council (CLC) in New Bern, North Carolina, helping adults to improve their reading and writing skills. Over three years, he has seen the impact he could have, helping seven individuals learn a better understanding of the English language.
At CLC, there is a huge demand for tutors. Its staff of 89 qualified volunteers teaches basic English and English as a Second Language (ESL) to more than 180 adults in North Carolina’s Craven, Jones and Pamlico counties – but almost 30 adults are on a waiting list for tutors. Many students are Spanish-speakers, relocated refugees, and most recently, displaced Burmese people - all of whom can benefit from improved English skills to gain better jobs in the local workforce and assimilate into the local culture.
"I know from my experience and that of others that, if students are motivated, they can significantly improve their lot in life by improving their literacy skills," Dick says.
Dick Bliss goes above and beyond volunteering at North Carolina’s Craven Literacy Council.
CLC teaches non-native-speaking adults through individualized learning plans with small-group and specialized class instruction. Some students begin the program at a level where words as simple as "dog" are unreadable. They start small, learning words with short vowels at first, reading simple stories, then advance to more complicated words and stories. ESL students sometimes face challenges of using consonants that aren't present in their native language, learning to pronounce common English sounds of v, w, th, g, and others. Students progress to reading local English newspapers and writing their own stories, which are published in a student newsletter.
One CLC student, who couldn’t read when he began attending tutoring sessions, is now the author of a book of poems about his experience.
When the shortage of trained volunteers resulted in a backlog of students waiting for tutoring, Dick applied for a grant for Reading Companion, IBM's web-based literacy program that uses interactive voice recognition software to improve students' reading skills by giving them individualized feedback. The acquisition of the program led to the creation of an in-house computer assisted learning center for student use. Recent training for experienced tutors has an increased emphasis on technical literacy and computer assisted training tools, including Reading Companion.
Giving goes both ways
As a tutor, Dick is inspired by some of the students he works with, in particular, one man from Burma who is committed to learning English to improve his life.
"I am also a student, learning from him the life of the oppressed Burmese and their struggle to survive," Dick says. "He still suffers from malaria that he acquired while living many years in refugee camps and too often misses tutoring sessions because of this, but his determination to become an American keeps him moving ahead. He works at a local manufacturing business, often on ten and twelve hour shifts, but still wants to attend three tutoring sessions a week. His determination and progress makes me feel needed and creates a feeling that I am still of value."
After three years as a tutor for CLC, Dick also committed to serving on the board of directors, and on the finance committee. His volunteer hours have resulted in three IBM Community Grants for CLC. The cash awards are being used to facilitate training sessions for new and experienced tutors. Dick’s work with CLC is only the most recent chapter in a lifetime of volunteering: providing business counseling through SCORE, rebuilding houses destroyed in floods and hurricanes, and helping to establish a local Habitat for Humanity chapter.
"My experiences as a volunteer in several capacities in the last 20 years have provided me with a feeling of meaningful existence and satisfying experiences in contributing to the well-being of our community," Dick says. "Too many people spend their time complaining about the state of their community or country and doing nothing – volunteering provides an active way to do something about improving conditions. For me, the biggest pay-off for my efforts this year has been the successful acquisition of U.S. citizenship by two of my students."
Dick says if you want to help something or someone in your community, volunteering is the best way. "Every organization that depends on volunteers is fully prepared to train and work with people that have little knowledge of their operations," he says. "Willingness to give of your time is the most important thing you are contributing."