The word “volunteer” came from the French word voluntaire, which meant community work in the 19th century. In the U.S., women volunteered their time and efforts during the Civil War, sewing military supplies or looking after injured soldiers in hospitals with experts’ supervision when the number of injured soldiers far exceeded the number of medical staff.
The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 and began to mobilize volunteers to provide emergency assistance to the poor and victims of natural disasters.
Today, there are as many volunteers as stars in the night galaxy. And every volunteer has a story or two to tell.
This is my account of “The joy of volunteering.”
I’ve been helping Tray, a senior in a high school on the east side of Kansas City, since 2012.
Tray was in the 10th grade two years ago in November when I first met him. His teacher informed me that Tray could read only like a second-grader and that he suffered Attention Deficit Disorder, and that the best thing to do was to use flash cards.
“Don’t expect too much from him in the beginning,” she said as she handed me a deck of flash cars each with big printed words such as bike, cake or desk. “He’s very slow!” she said.
When I sat with Tray face-to-face, a small desk between us, I couldn’t thrust those cards in front of him, because he was almost an adult. How could I ignore the fact that he might be feeling and thinking like an adult, though he could only read like a second-grader?
Tray didn’t look me in the eyes. With a bundle of tiny braids on his head, his expression told me he was ashamed of sitting in front of a stranger who was supposed to help him read better. I could almost hear him say, “I’ve been in school more than nine years, but I still can’t read. What makes you think I can read now?”
I told him earnestly, “Your teacher told me to use these cards, but I am not going to, because they will bore you death. I see you as a 16-year-old American male who wants to challenge the world, but you feel stuck, because you can’t read. I will do all I can to help you read, but you have to help me to help YOU, too, by cooperating with me. Can you do that?”
I shared my own story: I told him learning English as an adult was very difficult for me, but with the help of my American-born daughters and spending time reading and copying down sentences that I liked in books, I learned what I know today. “And I’m still learning everyday.”
For the first time he looked at me as if saying, “Are you serious?”
I handed him a pencil and paper. “Please introduce yourself on this paper. Writing is an excellent tool to improve your spelling. It worked for me and I know it will work for you. Begin with: “My name is Tray, and I am a high school student who lives in Kansas City.”
He spelled his name perfectly but not the rest of the words in the sentence. We worked on “high school,” “student,” and “Kansas City.” When he mastered those words, I told him frankly that he has much catching up to do.
Some of the materials I gave him to read included Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” speech at West Point, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech and quotations from great philosophers and teachers, including Confucius’ “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop!”
Although he couldn’t pronounce or understand many words on the paper I gave him, the messages clicked in his mind and he began to progress. I emphasized reading, then dictating what I read to him, and making his own sentences. One of the sentences he wrote read, “Some day, I want to get a job and sport (support) my family.”
Now he has two part-time jobs while preparing for a junior college to study heating and cooling this fall. For this reason, I’m now reading manuals on this subject, and I already know quite a bit about it. For instance: HVAC is not a brand name of vacuum cleaners but Heating, Ventilation and Air-conditioning. What’s SEER? It has nothing to do with deer; it’s Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio.
“We’re so proud of Tray, Mrs. Park!” a teacher greeted me with a big smile a few days ago. I had not been at school for months but I knew what she meant. “You pulled a man out of Tray,” she said, adding that he’s very serious about doing well on every subject.
I didn’t tell her this but I know Tray will be a perfect advocate for students struggling with ADD with the motto: “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop!”
The fun part of volunteering is that you always feel good about yourself at the end of the day.
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.