by Kathryn Fentress
Since 1978, the Whatcom Literacy Council has been helping adults in Whatcom County improve their literacy skills and learn English. Through customized individual tutoring and focused, small group classes, adult learners acquire critical skills needed to become more self-sufficient. Each year, adult learners set achievable goals to: 1) improve their parenting skills; 2) increase their employment opportunities; 3) attain their U.S. citizenship; 4) further their education; and 5) enhance the stability of their daily lives.
The volunteer tutors provide confidential, customized one-on-one tutoring for adults in basic literacy skills or confidential, customized one-on-one tutoring for adults in reading, writing and speaking English. Tutors may also participate in the small group classes that focus on reading, writing, speaking, civics for students learning English and Talk Time concentrating on conversational English. In 2016, there were 909 learners and 100 tutors in the program. The Whatcom Literacy Council is a nonprofit organization, funded through its own efforts and with the support of local businesses, organizations and individuals. With the help of hundreds of volunteer tutors, all Whatcom Literacy Council services for adult learners are provided free of charge.
Kathryn Fentress: When did you move to Bellingham?
Lisa Voigt: I’m from Shoreline and came here for college at Western in 1996. That first year, one of the Literacy Council people came into one of my classes and I became interested in volunteering. I tutored from September 1998 until 1999, again for the years 2003-2004, and now since January 2017. I came back after taking a break to have my two children. I really love doing it.
What about the tutoring do you like?
I like teaching one on one. I like the lesson plans and I learn along the way. I feel good about being a part of the community and doing something for the community.
How are learners assigned?
The Literacy Council folks are amazing. I work with Linda, the adult literacy person. She is wonderful if I have questions or concerns. She meets the people who come in for help and does the matching. When she finds someone she thinks would be a good match, she sends me the learner’s info for me to review. If I like the person on paper, she arranges a meeting with the three of us. We talk and get to know each other and see if it feels like it will work. I think the council staff is really good in the way they take time and care to arrange partners. I only do one learner at a time; it is a year-long commitment.
How does the arrangement work?
My learner and I agree upon a time and the council arranges places that are convenient and where parking is easy. Some people meet at Bellingham Tech, Whatcom Community College, at the Salvation Army administrative offices, or in coffee shops or nursing homes. The Council provides training in the beginning and the basic lesson plans. The tutors provide brief monthly reports, but we try to add fun things, games, and topics that cater to the learners’ interests if we can. I get library books on interesting topics and tailor the lesson plans. I want the person to want to be there and enjoy the learning. Literacy affects so many areas of our lives: parenting skills, employment, and health care. Learning to read also helps people feel better about themselves.
What in particular inspired you about the literacy program?
Most of my life I wanted to be a teacher. Working one on one with people appealed to me. I have been a volunteer since high school; I wanted a way to get out into the world and learn. At 14, I volunteered at the hospital. Later on I was a peer advisor at Western. I was a preschool teacher for a while; I enjoy both kids and adults. I volunteered at my kids’ school when they were younger. I was on the board of a MOM’s Club [a support group for at-home mothers] in Ferndale when my kids were little. I later set one up in Blaine for moms to meet with other moms. It is a national organization with the purpose of setting up events, play dates and play groups for new moms to connect with other moms.
What keeps you coming back to tutoring?
Teaching and learning. I like working with the lesson plans. Everyone has a different learning style and I enjoy figuring out ways to help my learner with what works best for them. My own son has a learning disability and so this topic is near and dear to my heart. I also had a hard time reading when I was in elementary school, so I understand how it is to struggle to read. I identify in some ways with the challenges and the learners appreciate the opportunity. We both learn from the process.
How do you keep your spirits up?
Exercise is important to me. We bought 10 acres of property a couple of years ago and the peace of our place helps. We also go camping as a family. Being with friends and family and reading fill me up. I also just finished school this past June at Skagit Valley College to be a chemical dependency counselor, and I am looking forward to working in the field.
What would your message be to our readers?
Having an open mind is important, as is knowing that they will gain a lot from the experience of helping people. The Literacy Council provides training and additional coaching or consultation when requested. There is flexibility for taking time off for vacations or illness. You can make it creative and fun. Prepping may be only 15 minutes on a plan but I am always looking for things that could be applied in the tutoring to keep it fresh and interesting for both of us. This project gives me energy and inspires me.
Thank you Lisa for your dedication to the Literacy Program and all the effort you put in for your learners. Best wishes in your new career.
Whatcom Literacy Council is open for new learners and new volunteers. On the website you will find more information and short videos about the tutoring program, www.whatcomliteracy.org.
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is in everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.
Gratitude and Goodbye
I am stepping down from writing the Unsung Hero column. I have just completed three years of interviewing 38 wonderful people who enrich our community. I wanted to do this column to support those who give of their time and energy to make our community a better place for all of us to enjoy. I have learned from our heroes, been excited by their projects and have opened to new possibilities in this work. I have been inspired and hopefully you have been as well. There are as many different ways to make a difference as there are people. I hope one of you will feel moved to take my place. I am shifting my attention to other projects but am available for support and advice. Thank you to the staff of Whatcom Watch for your hard work and assistance to me these past three years. Thank you to all the unsung heroes for your generosity of spirit. Kathryn Fentress