Once I realized that I was no longer averse to working on hunger relief and food and nutrition issues, I reached out to an old flame: Cooking Matters, the direct service arm of Share Our Strength, one of the nation's most successful hunger relief organizations, and one with a very active Boston-based chapter. More than twenty years ago, I first got involved with Cooking Matters as a volunteer and member of the local advisory board. In those days, local chefs -- some of whom have gone on to open multiplerestaurants, write books, and appear on TV -- lined up to teach healthy cooking and nutrition classes to adults at community agencies, and to kids in schools. The six-week program also relied on volunteer nutritionists and classroom assistants. A good time was had by all, and everyone had fun adapting the national curriculum to local ethnic and culinary preferences.
On the web site, I found the name and email address of the woman who coordinates volunteer opportunities; I sent her a note describing briefly my own history with Cooking Matters, and my interest in learning more about the program's current needs. We met over coffee and pastry at a local bakery. She brought me up to date on how the program has grown (and become, as she described it, more "corporate") in the past two decades, and confirmed that, like many other nonprofits, they have been swamped with inquiries about volunteer opportunities since the beginning of the year. Their primary need is for volunteers to work in the classrooms, as assistants or cooking instructors (the program no longer relies solely on professional chefs, but also welcomes talented and confident amateur teachers). Although I taught cooking classes for years, I'm not sure that's how I want to spend my time now, and we shared a few other ideas. "I'm really impressed that you're so intentional about how you approach your volunteer work," she commented.
Being intentional doesn't mean that you always find what you're seeking. More often, it means that you recognize when something is not a good fit, or not a fit right now. As much as I love the Cooking Matters program, it doesn't seem to be quite what I'm looking for as I build this volunteering life. However, I've learned to never say never.
If you have a six-year-old granddaughter who thinks your phone is her personal Game Boy, you'll love these screen cleaners. One side is sticky and adheres to the back of your phone or case; the other side is a microfiber "cloth" that wipes the fingerprints right off your screen. You can buy them in many different shapes and patterns, including glitter dots and zebra prints, and in medium (tablet) and large (laptop) sizes, too. The sticky screen cleaner I keep on my phone is just over one inch square, and the first one I tried lasted almost three months.
On my first day as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) conversation group assistant at Project Hope, an agency that serves low-income mothers, I worked with two women in an intermediate-level class. One, from the Dominican Republic, has three young children, and wants to study to become a medical assistant. The other, a Somali woman, has raised five kids as a single mom; two are college graduates, one is in college, one will go to Boston University next year, and one is still in high school. She wants to be a nurse and work with cancer patients. For both women, the goal is to improve their English, so they can pass the GED, enroll in certificate programs for their chosen career paths, and lift their families out of poverty.
They attend ESOL classes several days a week. In class, they learn to read and write in English, and the conversation groups help them practice speaking and listening. Their teacher provided me with a list of questions that related to the topic they were working with that day: employment. The questions also touched on less specific concepts, such as "What did you dream of being when you were growing up?" At the teacher's request, we used some of those questions as the basis for brief writing exercises, and I reviewed and corrected grammar and punctuation.
After we worked through the "official" conversation topics, I asked the women if they had any questions for me, questions about me or my own childhood dreams (ballerina, of course), or anything else. Both of the women told me that it can be frustrating to make people understand them in everyday interactions. One woman brought up the very sensitive topic of visits to the doctor. Why, she asked, when she went in for a mammogram and then needed a biopsy, did the doctor not allow her daughter to translate for her and instead insist upon bringing in a translator from the hospital? Now this person (the translator) knows everything about me, the student said, and she felt completely uncomfortable about that. And then we were off and running on the topic of medical privacy, a concept that is complicated to discuss in any language.
The scheduled hour raced by, and I left feeling totally jazzed and ... satisfied. It took me a few months to find this work, and I have so much to learn, but it feels right.
On the Saturday of my ESOL training (English for Speakers of Other Languages) with the Boston Cares Corps, I arrived at a community center in Dorchester with forty volunteers of all ages and from all backgrounds. We spent the morning in small groups, some focused on English classes, and others on technology for youth programs. During lunch, we all reconvened, and got to chat with each other over pizza and salad. At my table were an aerospace engineer, a retired English teacher, an artist, a lawyer, a mechanical engineer, and a college student. After lunch, we split into interest groups. Eighteeen of us found seats in the ESOL classroom, and flipped through our handouts of information and resources. Then the facilitator stood up and started waving a banana in the air.
Welcome to shock teaching, an immersive lesson in what it's like to learn English if you do not speak another language with the same root or alphabet, or if you are not literate in your native language. We began to repeat the word for banana over and over, without knowing which language we were speaking, and then the words for book, and eyeglasses, and pen. And then the question that we figured out, "yo ke ho (what is this)?" And the answer, "this is a banana." Sing song, over and over again. We were shown the written words: केरा Banana. कितावBook. चश्माEyeglasses. कलमPen. After we repeated dozens of times, we were asked to write each of the words, and then to repeat by reading the written words, without the visual cues. In 45 minutes, we'd managed to learn four words (I can't remember any of them now), and one really useful question. In Nepali, as we found out. Under the leadership of our very good facilitator from English for New Bostonians, our group spent quite a bit of time discussing how the experience made us feel: frustrated, excited, confused, helpless, hopeful, determined. In our roles as ESOL conversation group and class assistants, we would be working with students who felt exactly the way we did. We also spent some time on the subject of culture, and for those of us who would work with conversation groups, how to respond to comments or questions that in our culture people might consider difficult or inappropriate.
It was a great introduction to the new-to-me world of ESOL. Excited and ready to test myself in this arena, I signed up to work with Project Hope, an agency that provides low-income mothers access to education, jobs, housing, and emergency services. While I waited for yet another CORI background check to be completed, I tossed one more ball in the air and sent an email to a program with which I'd volunteered more than twenty years ago.
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