Willie Jean Vance can’t even talk about her tutoring without choking up. “I love kids, I love working with kids,” she says. “They're my heart. Don't make me cry!” Those tears speak eloquently of the joy and satisfaction she gets from teaching kids to read as a volunteer with AARP Foundation Experience Corps.
Ten years after retiring from a long nursing career, she received an email from AARP Foundation describing just what Experience Corps was all about. “I thought it could be something good. I thought that it would give me a chance to give back.” She attended an information session held at the Martin Luther King Library in San Diego, California. “I wanted to see what all was involved … and it sounded pretty good,” she says, “so here I am.”
AARP Foundation Experience Corps is a community-based volunteer program that engages highly trained people over 50 as tutors to help students become better readers by the end of third grade. It is a proven “triple win,” helping students to succeed, older adults to thrive, and communities to grow stronger.
Reading wasn’t always a central part of Willie Jean’s life, but Experience Corps has changed that. ”When I was growing up, I wasn't encouraged to read. So in turn, I didn't encourage my kids to read.” The program has helped her pass along the importance of reading to the next generation.
She’s now entering her third year with the program, and her connection to the children and the work is clear. “I have seen how reading is so important in everything we do. Without being able to read and understand what you're reading, you're very limited.” Experience Corps places a special emphasis on serving diverse populations in high-need communities, which resonates with Willie Jean. “Being African American, I know that even more. I see it in our communities, so I want to just help all kids.”
This year, Willie Jean worked with a second grader who was reading well below grade level. “She's really behind. But she would always come to class ready to go, ready to participate. At first she really didn't want to read. A lot of times kids don’t want to read because they don't know how. And they're ashamed sometimes.” Jeannie focuses on positive reinforcement, encouraging her even when she makes mistakes. “I tell her the right word, but I say, ‘You know, that's a good try.’"
For Willie Jean, the greatest reward comes from seeing her students take pride in their own progress. She describes an interaction with the young girl she tutors, one that indicated the child was “breaking the reading code,” as Willie Jean describes it. “She came into the session and she was so excited. She said, ‘We went on a field trip, and I saw these street signs, and I didn't know what all of them said, but I noticed [them]! And last weekend me and my mom went to the store, and there was a sign in the store that said, Out of Order.’” Willie Jean could hear the joy in being able to read that simple sign. “For me, that was just like wow. She's opening up. She's bringing you her pride in what she's been able to do.”
Willie Jean’s endorsement of the program is resounding. She says it not only helps the kids, but it benefits her personally. “You're helping society, number one. Number two, you're helping yourself. If you want these kids to read, then you've got to read too. So it's encouraging me to do more reading.” You can read more stories here.