Saturday, May 9, 2009

What's worthwhile

I get the idea of focusing time and attention where they will make the most impact. There's only so much time, and so much (less so lately) money; we are smart to use these resources strategically.

And yet... maybe it's not always about being smart and strategic.

I volunteer for a local adult literacy agency, on a committee recruiting volunteer tutors to help functionally illiterate adults learn to read and write. We staff tables at author booksignings, speak at book festivals, go wherever we think we can find people who will consider giving their time to teach someone to read. We also try to make potential students aware of this free program that can literally change their lives.

So that's why I found myself heading off to a local branch library today to speak, along with another volunteer, to a group of young women attending a "women's empowerment seminar." While perfectly willing to do this, I was puzzled about our purpose. Being able to read is surely a foundation for empowerment, but I wasn't quite sure how what we had to say fit into their program - or what their program actually was - nor who the audience was. Were we talking to potential tutors or potential students? Both? Neither?

When I asked the fellow volunteer who arranged the appearance why we were doing his, he responded: "Because they asked."

Now, there's a smart, strategic reason.

We were welcomed by La'Keisha, an energetic and delightful young student at one of our local colleges, who has taken it upon herself to organize quarterly seminars for a small but engaged group of young women in her community. As attentive as they were, I am pretty sure there weren't any potential tutors among them. We might have indirectly reached a possible student: one of seminar participants picked up our handouts to share with a friend struggling to pass a test to be a certified nursing assistant, in case better reading skills will help.

The time was not without redeeming value. At the end of our presentation, La'Keisha gave me a trophy with an image of helping hands as a gift and my fellow volunteer, who had done this gig last year and thus already received his trophy, got a pair of movie passes. We also got to congratulate one participant who had contributed a trash bag full of teddy bears to another of La'Keisha's projects, donating teddy bears to the police department for their use in working with children in scary situations.

But against our primary goal of finding new tutors, not a productive use of time. Against our secondary goal of making potential students aware there is free help available for them, so-so.

Not smart. Not strategic. But will I do it again next year?

In a heartbeat. Because they ask.

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