UPDATED: Sept. 25, 2013, 10 a.m.: As they await the birth of their first grandchild, Fred and Martha “Marty” Smith know that books and reading will play a large role in their life with their grandson or granddaughter.
After all, Marty made a career as an executive with Pearson Education, serving as president of the publishing company’s K-12 School Group, and both she and her husband, Fred, were teachers early in their marriage.
When the couple learned about AARP Experience Corps and discovered that its Boston affiliate, Generations Incorporated, was seeking literacy volunteers, they realized they had found the perfect way to combine their love of reading and desire to give back.
Generations Incorporated targets communities in Boston and Revere where literacy scores are low. Volunteers work with elementary school-age youngsters on reading comprehension, phonetic awareness, and vocabulary.
During the school year, the Smiths commute twice a week from their home in Dedham to Boston’s South End to help Boston public schoolchildren improve their reading skills. The reading sessions are held during an after school program—called B.READY—run by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
It is this dedication – and the work they’ve done for the past five years—that led them to be nominated and chosen for the 2013 Andrus Award for Community Service, AARP’s most prestigious volunteer honor.
Named for founder Ethel Percy Andrus, the AARP Andrus Award for Community Service is given annually to one outstanding volunteer in every state. A selection committee evaluates nominees based on a range of criteria, including how their volunteer work positively impacts the lives of individuals 50 and over, how their work improves the community, and how they inspire others to volunteer. To be eligible for the award, the accomplishments, achievements or service on which the nomination is based must have been performed on a volunteer basis, without pay and reflect AARP’s vision and mission.
“AARP has long celebrated and recognized the achievement and important contributions of dedicated volunteers across the country,” said Linda Fitzgerald, state president, AARP Massachusetts. “We want to recognize Bay State residents age 50 and older who are making an impact and empowering seniors in their community.”
Last year’s Andrus Award recipient was Carmen DiPaolo, a longtime activist in Boston’s Mission Hill community. This year, for the first time, AARP Massachusetts is presenting the Andrus Award recipient with a monetary prize to be donated to an eligible nonprofit of his or her choosing. The Smiths’ will give the money to Generations Incorporated.
“An awesome, dynamic couple”
Mary Gunn, executive director of Generations Incorporated, said her organization nominated the Smiths because “they are exceptionally motivated to serve,” especially traveling as far as they do and being among the few volunteers at St. Stephen’s from outside of the community.
Because English is a second language for many of the children in the after school program, the Smiths decided to turn this potential challenge into another vehicle for connecting with the students. The couple uses bilingual books with the Spanish-speaking children, and Marty created her own English and Spanish cards for “Concentration,” the popular matching game.
In addition, the couple has learned to motivate reluctant readers by focusing on their interests. For example, Fred said that when he and Marty realized the kids “all watch [professional] wrestling, we got wrestling books!”
The Smiths: Role Models for Life
This method of learning about each child’s interests and using those interests to bolster reading confidence has proven effective, particularly with one child in the program. Struggling with a lisp that embarrassed him, he was taunted by other children, and consequently refused to read aloud. Marty and Fred soon realized the young boy was “a whiz in math,” so Fred began to give him math problems to read. Marty, meanwhile, bought copies of the popular children’s book series, “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and let him take the books home. Eventually, with the Smith’s support and encouragement, the child grew into a confident reader and a more successful all-around student.
Kendra Mrozek, director of training for Generations Incorporated, said that the Smiths’ duality imparts a strong message to the students. “The students they work with are [kids who] not only need the reading support but also an adult in their life that truly cares…it’s so much more than reading, it’s providing these students with life mentors.” Observing Fred and Martha offers a valuable opportunity for the students, Mrozek added, “because they’re just positive role models—two adults who spend so much time together. They offer a huge learning opportunity for these students to see.”
Helping other volunteers as well as the students
For Fred and Martha, the experience serving as reaching coaches goes beyond aiding each individual child: They also share their successes and best practices with the other members of the St. Stephen’s team, both volunteers and staff. The couple said they constantly share notes—and books—with the other volunteers at the after-school program, and say they see the value each member of the teaching team brings to the students.
When expressing gratitude for receiving the AARP Andrus Award for Community Service, Marty emphasized that she and Fred are just like the many other volunteers making a difference. “We’re doing the same thing as [the] other volunteers,” she said. “When we first got married, he taught and I taught…we do this for our satisfaction.”
More than anything, they said, they hope their example inspires others to volunteer. “If you knew how many kids need a grandparent,” Marty said. “We’ve helped so many kids who are dealing with a lot.”
For information on volunteering with Generations Incorporated, contact them in Boston at 617-423-6633 or visit http://states.aarp.org/volunteer-and-help-a-child-learn-to-read/.