I started as a volunteer tutor over 20 years ago. That seems so long ago and yet just a blink of an eye. At the time, I was working part-time in a retail pharmacy (CVS), and one Saturday night a middle-aged gentleman in a 3-piece suit came in angry about everything (“you’re out of the sale item!”, “you moved the aspirin!”, “your signs are too small!”, etc.). Since Saturday nights are slow in the pharmacy biz, and there was no way the minimum wage cashiers were going to tolerate this guy, I went out to see if I could help him find what he needed.
After some time shopping together, we ended up in the card aisle and he said, “Pharmacy is like a priest so you have to keep my secrets, right?” …”Ummm, yes”… I admit, I was a little worried about what was coming next! “I need help finding a card because I don’t read so good.” The thought had never crossed my mind that he might have trouble reading. Really? He was a grown man, sharp, smart. So, I read cards to him until he found one that he liked. He paid for his things and left, far less angry than when we began.
For several months, he came in nearly every Saturday night, and we went through the same routine: He’d bluster and fuss, I’d go out to help him, and we’d end up in the card aisle (something for his nephew’s birthday, his neighbor’s wedding, his anniversary…). I decided to call around to find a place where he could get more permanent, substantial help. That call was life-changing, more for me than for him, because that’s when I became a Washtenaw Literacy tutor! As for the gentleman? I never saw him again after giving him the referral, and to my knowledge he never did call Washtenaw Literacy.
Through the years, I’ve met many dedicated tutors and worked with plenty of passionate staff. I’ve assessed a ton of learners thinking “there but by the grace of God go I”, and I’ve had the honor of tutoring many wonderful people. But, I will admit, one learner stands out, not for what happened during our tutoring (although he was a rock star), but for what has come since.
Hugo was a beginner from Colombia. He wanted to get into Ford School of Public Policy at U of M and eventually go back to his country to work with the homeless in the shanty towns of Bogota. It took just under 3 years, but he got into U of M and after receiving his Master’s returned to Colombia. Now, 15 years later, he calls me every Thanksgiving. As soon as the phone rings, I begin to cry. He calls to tell me how thankful he is for all that I did for him and his family. He even gives me a little report on his life in the past year and the people he’s helped (that he reminds me I’ve helped by proxy) through his work on sustainable community gardening in some of the poorest sections of Bogota.
Wow. What a gift to have an opportunity to have that kind of impact. It’s not just local, it’s global. It’s not just today, it’s for the next generation. I may have started my journey with the gentleman in the pharmacy, but I stay for the impact that seems far greater than I ever imagined possible. And, now, I have the privilege of leading the organization as a staff member. I could not be more proud of our organization and our people, including each of you.
Please join me in supporting Washtenaw Literacy in whatever way and at whatever level you can. Do it for staff, as an encouragement to keep going. Do it for our volunteers, our learners. Do it for the Hugo’s of the world. And, for the nameless folks out there who have to ask for help to buy a card in a pharmacy on a Saturday night. Literacy is a right! Help us make it a right for all.