Ann Lonstein is a longtime friend of the literacy council. We asked her to share why literacy matters to her. This is what she said:
My cousin says that when she thinks of me as a child, she sees me lying on a bed reading and eating a tomato. That is true. I loved both books and tomatoes and still do. The tomato fed my body and the books my mind and soul. The books also planted in me the seeds of adventure and connected me to the world outside Messina, the small town on the northern border of South Africa, where I grew up.
South Africa had two major languages – English and Afrikaans. I learned to read and speak both but went to an English-speaking school. The books I read from the age of seven onwards tended to be written by English writers. They prepared me for boarding school at age twelve.
I also read many books by American authors. When my husband and I had to make a decision about emigrating, perhaps because of reading books about New England and the history of the United States, I agreed to move to Boston.
Ann and her husband, John, in London, where they spent the night on their way to the U.S.
When we flew into Boston airport, I was startled by the sense of recognition I had. I felt as if I had lived there, and of course I had, in the books I had read.
I was sure we would have no problem with the language. We speak English, don’t we? We had trouble on the first day at our hotel. The room had two beds and a couch. Where was the cot for our baby? They told us they would bring up a crib.
The accents threw us too. We were in a deli and bought chicken. The large man behind the counter asked in what I now know to be a southern accent, “do you want cawlslaw?” John kept saying, “I want the cabbage salad,” which, we realized that day, is coleslaw.
We were lucky because with some bumps we could speak and read the language and our accent helped us be understood even when we said a word with a long A and they used a short A.
Recently, I thought of my love of words and language in a new way. I realized that every human, learns to use words and hopefully most learn to read and write them. We all have a place, a country, an area that we live in or come from. We are all a part of that world. Then we may move to another place, country, area and have to start again, building a new life with language.
That is what literacy is. Not knowing the language of a new place does not make us illiterate. We still have our favorite books, stories and food. We still have our language and history. But we need to learn the language of the new place to create our futures.
Leaving everything we know and moving to a new place takes incredible bravery and dedication. Sometimes, we’re lucky and already know the language of the new place, which can help us fit in more quickly. Other times, we need an organization like the literacy council to help us learn and rebuild. I am in awe of what the literacy council does and am honored to support it.
Ann Lonstein arrived in the United States 50 years ago. Read more of her writing on her travel blog.
We sat down with Bill Helker, a long-time volunteer who started out in the ESL classroom and later found his niche as a dedicated citizenship tutor. Bill and his wife Carol recently attended the naturalization ceremony for his student Fadumo. Carol supports the many hours Bill spends tutoring each week – and the extra prep time he puts in at home!
How many students have you helped to become citizens?
Bill: I’ve lost count. About 75 through Open Door Learning Center. I tutor them one-to-one at various times and locations to fit their schedule.
Can you tell us a bit about your most recent student?
My most recent student to acquire citizenship was Fadumo, in September. I worked with Fadumo for about two years, so she was one of our longest running students. She has five kids, two of them with special needs, so she has a lot on her plate. But she always attended class so consistently and was always in good spirits. She’s just a wonderful person.
What is your favorite citizenship subject to teach?
The Constitution. Depending on the student, we can really delve deeper into the material.
What advice do you have for future tutors?
Have a lesson plan! I’m very big on lesson plans. You can make notes on them as you go, and when you come back to it later you know exactly where there was a hang up. I would also encourage volunteers to let go of Western cultural norms when it comes to being on time and sticking to schedules. Go with the flow!
What do you wish more people knew or understood about your students?
How much they want citizenship! My students are always so industrious and hardworking. I have some great conversations with them. But I do wish people, including me, had a better and more accurate understanding of the government benefits they actually receive. There are a lot of misconceptions out there.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Over the years, students have tried to give me gifts. It’s a sign of respect and esteem in many cultures. But I politely decline and instead tell them, ‘The greatest gift you can give me is to promise that once you pass your citizenship test, you will vote in every single election.’ And yes, Fadumo did vote in November! I also got a call from another former student, Hodan. She was so excited and proud to tell me she voted!
We sat down with "The Barbs," a pair of longtime friends who also volunteer together at Open Door Learning Center-Northeast, teaching a Beginner ESL class. Listen to find out more about one of their favorite volunteer memories, how their roles have reversed and what makes one of them tear up every time.
13-year-old Hannah made a huge donation — 714 children's books and $1,356 — to the Minnesota Literacy Council. She held a book and fundraising drive in honor of her Bat Mitzvah and the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam. Listen to Hannah share her connection to literacy in this audio conversation.
We consider Doris Peterson to be one of the founding leaders of the Minnesota Literacy Council back in the early 1970s. Watch her show you a reading lesson from 40 years ago and listen as she shares why she continues to donate today.
We also enjoyed hearing her memories of the early days of the literacy council:
DORIS ON CALLS TO THE READING HOTLINE IN THE 70s:
"If the wife called for her husband, we told her, 'That's not good enough! He needs to call for himself!'"
DORIS ON ENCOURAGING ADULTS WHO COULDN'T READ:
"We had to convince them that they shouldn't be embarrassed. Because it was NOT. THEIR. FAULT. It was economic deprivation."
DORIS ON BECOMING A BETTER TEACHER:
"President Kennedy just died, and there was a big push: What can you do for your country? You just felt you needed to use your skills to improve something. Everybody was there to help everyone. I miss that."
"What do you wish all Americans knew about Muslims?"
That's the question volunteer John Dunham posed to his advanced ESL students, many of whom are Muslim. As students conversed, John took notes. He was moved by their passion and call for peace. John compiled his students' words with his thoughts, and his Op-Ed piece was published in the Star Tribune.
He says the best part of this project was "letting their voices be heard instead of our speculations."
"Literacy is survival and success in life for an immigrant or refugee," says John. "The more words you know -- your ability to express yourself -- accounts for a lot of what happens to you in life."
When Jenna Yeakle’s fifth-grade teacher asked students to predict what their lives would be like in the next ten years, Jenna said she wanted to be an emu farmer, a single mother raising her children in the woods and a hockey player.
But instead of emus or hockey pucks, Jenna’s companions are the national service members she supports as VISTA leader at the Minnesota Literacy Council. She is serious about service—and has a small tattoo of a spoon on her right wrist to prove it.
We sat down with her to hear the story behind the spoon and ask her why literacy matters.
“Knives are for cutting, forks are for eating, spoons are for serving.” This camp saying was ingrained in Jenna’s mind thanks to years as a camper and counselor. For her, a spoon represents service to others. After an inspiring day of VISTA service, Jenna decided to get a tattoo of a spoon to remember her personal mission to serve others in any capacity she can. It represents accommodation, flexibility and working to meet the needs of the individuals and community around her. She’s fulfilling that commitment today with a second year of national service.
Literacy matters to Jenna because it gives her everything she needs to serve: the ability to send emails, write blog posts, draft proposals, review applications and navigate healthcare benefits. And literacy matters to Jenna because she knows it improves quality of life, allowing herself and others to read and grow and explore, to love life. Her career path will continue in education so she can empower others to reach their potential.
Are you or someone you know interested in serving as a Literacy VISTA starting in August? Learn more about the VISTA positions and benefits. Applications accepted on a rolling basis through May 30.