By Marion Filler
American hospitality is alive and well, at the Morristown headquarters of Literacy Volunteers of Morris County.
“We more than open books, we open doors,” is the motto of the largest provider of free and personalized instruction in reading, writing and English conversation to adults over 18 in the State of New Jersey.
In a typical year, 300 tutors — all of them volunteers — assist approximately 800 students.
The majority are in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. But there also are native English speakers who are functionally illiterate, defined as reading below the 5th grade level.
This is an adult who cannot not read a newspaper, complete a job application, or understand written instructions from a doctor.
“The volunteers commit to meet a student for one hour each week for one year,” says staff member Bevin Tierney.
Everyone involved must be over 18 and live and work in Morris County. Students must commit to reside in the area for two years.
“Whenever possible, we try to match a student with a volunteer who would be a good fit,” says Tierney.
There is magic in the method. Most pairs meet at public locations such as libraries and coffee shops that are convenient to both.
Tutors do not speak another language and teach to the particular goals of their students: Obtaining a GED or a driver’s license, passing a citizenship exam, or just learning to converse in their place of employment.
The headquarters of Literacy Volunteers is at 10 Pine St. It’s a quiet place to study, with a library geared to teach basic skills.
Vocabulary books with illustrations of common objects are a good way to start. Students can borrow whatever materials they need and are encouraged to study on their own.
Role-playing is another effective way to teach familiar phrases. It can facilitate interaction in a place of employment, a visit to the grocery store, a PTA meeting, or just a simple greeting to an English-speaking neighbor.
In addition to one-on-one sessions, approximately 60 conversation groups meet throughout the county. Sometimes just sitting down with someone and speaking in English for an hour can be productive.
“It’s a safe way to practice and feel comfortable. The students try very hard to learn. We had one girl who was actually annoyed when she went into a store and was addressed in Spanish instead of English. She wanted to practice her new skills,” Tierney recounts.
Approximately half of students are Hispanic and 30 percent are Asian. Mr. Hang, a young man from China, explained: “In China, we are focused on reading English but not speaking. I want to improve my fluency.”
He plans to stay in the U.S. for about five years. Commonly, he said, children of expatriates lose the ability to read and write in Chinese. “They have to go for Chinese lessons when we go back,” Hang said.
Nancy Cunningham of Morristown has been a volunteer since 1998 and specializes in preparing students for citizenship.
Although she once traveled extensively, “The students now bring the world to me. I love it, and no way would I give this up.”
The Literacy Volunteers of Morris County do not receive any government support and rely on grants and contributions from the community.
Their main fundraiser is a 5K “Turkey Trot” race on Thanksgiving Day that brings 3,000 runners to Morris Township’s Ginty Field, and has become one of the largest meets in the area.