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Volunteer Tutors: Giving Goes Both Ways

Virginia Comma, Experience Corps volunteer, reads a children’s book before a class. Photo by Sean Proctor.

By Jill Gambon

Virginia “Ginger” Comma, a volunteer with AARP Foundation Experience Corps, loves witnessing students make progress in the after-school reading program at the Boys & Girls Club of Boston’s Blue Hill Club. Looking for help with reading and writing, the students start the year reticent and bashful, reluctant to read aloud.

But as the year advances, they get to know their reading coaches and develop confidence in their emerging skills.

“At the beginning they barely speak above a whisper, but over time they open up. They love to come in and read to us,” said Comma, 66. “It’s so gratifying.”

Comma, of Dorchester, is among more than 250 volunteers 50 and older working with public school students in Boston and Revere through Experience Corps. AARP Massachusetts is a partner of Generations Inc., a nonprofit focused on improving literacy among young schoolchildren.

Volunteers work one-on-one or with small groups of students in kindergarten through third grade. Some work in classrooms, and others as reading coaches in the after-school programs.

“It’s a really wonderful intergenerational program with a heavy focus on literacy,” said Mary Gunn, executive director of Generations Inc. “The volunteers’ commitment is impressive.”

Reaching thousands
By building literacy skills, the program aims to help close the gap that exists between children from low-income families and their more affluent peers. Last year, 36 percent of Boston Public Schools third graders scored at grade level or above on a state reading test, compared with 57 percent of those statewide.

Thousands of students in Boston and Revere, including more than 3,000 this year, have been tutored by Experience Corps volunteers since the program’s launch in 1998.

Student assessments and teacher evaluations have demonstrated the volunteers’ impact, according to Gunn. Indeed, in a survey last year, 91 percent of teachers who had Experience Corps volunteers in their classrooms reported gains in student reading and literacy skills, along with improvements in behavior and attendance.

Last year, in an effort to reach those in need earlier, Generations Inc. shifted its focus to the youngest students, in kindergarten and first grade. This mirrors an effort by Boston Public Schools to boost literacy programs for its youngest pupils. All Experience Corps volunteers had to be retrained. Gunn said data are still being collected on the impact of the change.

Working an average of eight to 10 hours a week, volunteers are well-prepared for their roles. They first undergo background checks and then receive training before and during the school year. Site supervisors such as Comma do periodic performance reviews to provide feedback.

Sheila Buckman of South Boston, a volunteer reading coach for nine years, appreciates the preparation. Buckman, 55, said she is constantly learning new ways to motivate and communicate with her students at Blackstone Innovation School in Boston’s South End. “I have benefited immensely from volunteering. I learn from the kids,” she said.

Volunteers can also take part in numerous activities that Generations Inc. offers, including walking groups, book clubs, coffee hours and classes on health and nutrition. Comma enjoys the tutoring so much that she spends many spare hours at the Blue Hill Club, making sure things are ready for the 44 students who come in each week.

“I love it,” said Comma, a retired IRS supervisor. “I get so much back from the experience—far more than I’m giving.”

The Experience Corps program is expanding into more schools and seeks another 80 volunteers for the new school year. For information, contact Katie Klister of Generations Inc. at or 617-399-4700.

Jill Gambon is a writer living in West Newbury, MA.

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