Maimonides formulated eight levels of giving; the highest form being to help someone become self-sufficient. Yet a lot of the time, when we talk about tzedakah, or charity, we think of benefactors who can write hefty checks or annual campaigns marked by how many dollars are raised. But Maimonides is clear that, while giving money is great, it is the action of helping someone become self-sufficient that is the greatest form of tzedakah we, as Jews, can perform. How do we do this in Orange County? One way is teaching a child to read.
Literacy, even in Orange County, continues to be a problem and that is why Women’s Philanthropy of JFFS created Reading Partners almost nine years ago. The volunteer literacy program, helps children in Orange County enrolled in grades K through three who are socio-economically or educationally disadvantaged. The program also provides school supplies and books to students – for some the first or only book they have in the home. Many of these children come from immigrant homes where English is either a second language or not spoken in the home. Though the program requests just one hour a week of the volunteer’s time, many spend more than an hour making a difference in the lives of the students, teachers, families and the volunteers themselves. The following three stories demonstrate why helping a child learn to read has proven to be priceless.
Derek Gavshon was met with a change in his life and he wanted something to fill the sudden vacuum of time. He met with Doris Jacobson at JFFS and was introduced to Reading Partners.
“I was a little apprehensive – I was being asked to do something in a field I haven’t worked in before.” Though Gavshon served many years at Tarbut V’ Torah, he was administration, not necessarily education, so he was unsure about this volunteer position. “A lot of people in the program are teachers.” But Gavshon was teamed up with a second grade classroom at Adams Elementary School in Costa Mesa and he never looked back.
With 18 children in the classroom he didn’t have the largest of classes, but he did have his concerns. One concern was his South African accent. As Gavshon read to students they were like sponges, picking up on everything, including his accent. “Every once in a while I hear a tinge of the accent when they read…”
Gavshon has also learned from the experience. Not one to take things lightly, he volunteers four days a week, a little over one hour everyday and he sees a lot in those four days. He relayed the story of seeing one second grader tying another second grader’s shoe, ”They were both young… The one [tying the shoe] got behind him like he was tying his own shoe. It is rare to see that kind of cooperation,” he says.
“[The program] is teaching me to be a lot more patient as well,” says Gavshon. “You can’t get frustrated with little errors or mistakes. But you can come way with a sense of satisfaction!”
Sharon Pearlmuter is a retired teacher of 25 years. Pearlmuter taught Kindergarten through third grade and Religious School at Bat Yahm, so she is familiar with the classroom. Eight years ago she had a Reading Partner volunteer in her classroom for five years. After retiring, she returned to her school as a Reading Partner.
The school Pearlmuter works at is a Title I school, namely a school that receives funding due to the high rate of low-income students. According to Pearlmuter, 85% of the students at her school speak English as a second language and, “there is not a lot of fluency in the home. Books are often lacking in the home – Reading Partners provides books and pencils.”
Reading Partners are very valuable to the teachers as they work exclusively with the students. Pearlmuter describes the volunteers as “reliable, dependable and efficient.” And, “Many [of the volunteers] are retired teachers, so they understand the importance of what they are doing,” she says.
Diane Rojas grew up in Santa Ana and volunteers one to two hours a week in the same neighborhood. The child of immigrants, she grew up bilingual, “but English was never an issue.” A young college student who works part time, she was shocked to learn that entire classrooms are unable to speak English.
Volunteering is important to Rojas, and it is exciting to see progress, “Students are more confident,” says Rojas. But she also believes it helps for the students to have someone with similarities. “I remember as a kid it was important to be able to interact with someone that looked like me and spoke Spanish the way I did.” But she also learned there is a lot more going on in the world than she realized, “I am not the only one with obstacles – doing this makes me realize I will get through my obstacles.”
Overall the program has benefited the students, teachers and families of the students. All of the volunteers interviewed relayed that respective classrooms have shown improvement in standardized testing. The program has also helped to identify students with previously undetected learning challenges.
Though not all volunteers are Jewish, many are. And, as Gavshon said, “it is the two percent helping out the 98 percent.” This program not only provides a way for others to give their time, but it is also a way to give people a unique perspective of the Jewish community. Α
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a therapist with Jewish Federation & Family Services in Orange County and an Adjunct Professor at Argosy University and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Dr. Grajewski has been with JLife Magazine since 2004.