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A Quick Study

Library Volunteers

Over the last five years, Helene Grey Kirschner has given lots of advice to people age 50+ who come to the midtown Manhattan library for job coaching. The retired headhunter and AARP volunteer has been known to tell women that they need to lose that bright red lipstick or lighten up on their makeup at a job interview. For the men, it’s usually a suggestion to dress more neatly, "said with diplomacy." Kirschner will help them polish résumés and cover letters, steer them toward the kinds of companies they should pursue, shore up their interviewing skills, and instruct them on follow-up etiquette.

About this, Kirschner is clear: Having basic computer skills is essential today. So, she often will suggest that pupils sign up for a free computer course at the library. The price is right, and it couldn’t be more convenient!

She tries to bolster their confidence and—at the same time—gives them a reality check. Many job seekers want to start their own businesses, Kirschner finds. But unless they have ample money and time, she urges them to develop their skills at a job where someone else is paying them. When she’s coaching—clients get this service for free—Kirschner typically spends one hour with a prospective candidate and stresses the job interview. "It will make or break them," she believes. "Sometimes candidates talk on and on and want to tell their story. But interviewers aren’t interested in their story. I tell them: ‘Look the person in the eye, don’t fidget, listen to what they say, pause, and then answer their questions. The questions you want answered come later. And absolutely no negative remarks about your last job!’"
After just that one session, Kirschner says: "They walk out with their shoulders back and their heads held high. They always want to kiss or hug us because they’re grateful, and they feel better about themselves." Volunteering also gives Kirschner a boost. "I get a glow after someone’s [finished a session], and I know that they’re going in the right direction. I’ve learned something through these people about strength and coping skills. Some of them are destitute and stay in shelters, and yet, they’re still putting one foot in front of the other. It can break your heart, but it’s so rewarding."
Library mentors and tutors claim that they learn a lot about themselves, too. One volunteer at Elmhurst Public Library’s Adult Learning Center in Queens, N.Y.,was laid off from a full-time clerical position at age 51. She realized she no longer wanted to do office work and happened to see an advertisement on television about being a tutor. She wasn’t sure it would be a fit because she didn’t like to speak up in front of people. "I surprised myself by volunteering," she admits. She’s been doing it since 1992, at first helping people read and write better and now teaching English as a second language (ESL) to immigrants.
For the past 10 years, 78-year-old Sarah Payne has volunteered three days a week at the Rochdale Adult Learning Center, one of seven adult learning centers in the Queens, N.Y., library system. The former nurse is involved in its literacy program, teaching adults whose primary language is English how to read and write. The program, designed for those who read below a fifth-grade level, has three sections: The first one is for students who are just learning their ABCs, the middle one is for adults who are reading at a first- or second-grade level, and the third one is for those who are more proficient. Mastering these skills allows them to fill out job applications, if they choose, as well as cope better once they attain work.

Her class is eclectic, ranging from eager learners in their 80s who didn’t attend school when they were younger to middle-age underachievers who never learned the basics to patients from a nearby residential drug-rehabilitation program. Payne has helped them write résumés and watched proudly as some have found jobs.

The students do collective reading around the table—whether it’s books, newspapers, or magazines from a formal syllabus. Payne requires that they keep journals and jot down entries consisting of at least two sentences. At the start of each class, she gets them to practice reading their entries aloud.
"I am fulfilled and jubilant. I can feel the love in the room," Payne says. "There are such wonderful relationships between tutors and students. It’s a glorious place to be." To find out about being a library mentor, contact your local library.

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