Thursday, July 25, 2013

I just wish I had started volunteering sooner!

This post was written for the July 2013 Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival hosted by Stephen at Head of the Heard; this month's theme is "Hidden Opportunities."  Do go read about other parents' discoveries and surprises on their journey to bilingualism!

In July 2005, my husband Ed and I got married.  I was working as a lecturer in French at Colorado State University, an hour's drive away from my new home in Lafayette, Colo.  With all my co-workers, my book groups, my favorite theatre and restaurants, and so many friends back there, I was concerned that Lafayette would be where I slept but Fort Collins where I lived.

Therefore, in August 2005, when I heard that the local library was looking for volunteer tutors for its drop-in afterschool Homework Center, I applied, thinking that helping out there would help me meet people, practice my Spanish, and maybe even make math and reading more manageable for some of the kids.  Who knew that this volunteer gig would lead to more opportunities for me to pursue my ultimate career goal of teaching French to young children?

Here's how it gradually happened...

2005: At the Homework Center, I worked with a lot of children who were emergent or struggling readers.  I also befriended Estela, the Homework Center Assistant.

Denver Channel 7 News featured the Homework Center as one of its Everyday Heroes (you can catch a glimpse of me and Griffin at the very end of the clip)

2006: Estela was promoted to Reading Buddies Coordinator at the library.  I kept tutoring and, overall, learning more from the kids than they probably were learning from me!  

fall 2006: My supervisor at the Homework Center recommended me to a parent who was looking for a private reading tutor for her child.  I started tutoring this second-grade girl twice a week.  (Also, my nephew was born, and soon after that, this blog about speaking exclusively French to him!)
a happy Tatie and her baby nephew
2007: Realizing that I didn't know enough about how to help a student who was reading so far below grade level, I started actively researching strategies, activities, materials, and methods.  (Developing these lessons got me all fired up about teaching children to read--too bad my nephew was still a toddler.)
For example, modifying board games like Candyland by writing word families on each square so that the players have to say a word that ends with that particular letter combination--great for emergent readers!
spring 2007: The commute back and forth to CSU--especially during snowstorms--was dragging me down and I was losing my enthusiasm for teaching college students.  My husband and I had also been trying to start a family.

summer 2007: Estela's husband got a new job and they had to leave Lafayette.  She suggested that I apply for her part-time position as coordinator of Reading Buddies, a free reading enrichment program in which middle and high school volunteers meet once a week one-on-one with younger students to read together and play literacy games.  And I was pregnant!

fall 2007: I resigned from CSU.  During my Reading Buddies interview, I answered their questions about working with reluctant readers with lots of specific ideas, most of which had developed from my private tutoring and my Homework Center experience.  Volunteering pays off--I got the job!

fall 2007: It dawned on me that many parallels exist between my old job (helping college students learn to read and write in their second language) and my new one (helping teenagers help elementary school students learn to read and write in their first language).  Very cool.

2008: My son, Griffin, was born, and I began speaking to him exclusively in French.
happy Maman and her baby boy
newborn Griffin visits a Reading Buddies session and hears his first Eric Carle book
Little Buddies reading to the "Baby Buddy" while the Big Buddy wonders why exactly his supervisor brought a screaming child to work
2009: Griffin and I joined a French-language playgroup.

2010: Several of us from the playgroup attended a French storytime at a different library and were so disappointed that we decided to create our own storytime!  And since I was already employed at a library, it wasn't hard to get this approved.  (So now I had three different "jobs" there, two volunteer and one paid.)
my friend Mathilde and her two boys at French storytime
2011: I developed more confidence in planning and leading storytimes in my second language, even in front of an audience of native speakers, even while chasing my active preschooler around the room, even during18 weeks of morning sickness while pregnant with my daughter!  (Then I took a little break after she was born.)
pensive baby Gwyneth, two days old, wearing the dress that I sported when my parents brought me home from the hospital
And here she is at her first Reading Buddies session, age 1, watching the big kids play Chutes and Ladders with word families
2012: When local nonprofits solicited donations for their silent auction fundraisers, I offered French lessons for children.
I had already developed some games--but they would be more fun to play with kids than by myself
2013: For the first time, an auction winner actually followed up and brought her children to me for French classes!

spring 2013: A violin teacher overhears me talking about storytime and asks me to lead the French immersion lesson each day in her French-themed summer Suzuki strings camp.

the students' performance of "Roule Galette" on the last day of class; Griffin is the boy in the blue shirt

summer 2013: And it actually happened!  For the first time, I received real money to teach a French class to children, with my bilingual son as my teaching assistant (and my toddler daughter doing all the not-sitting-still this time).

So, you see, after eight years of volunteer work (and countless hugs and "thank yous" from the Homework Center students), I have a job I love which makes me feel connected to the community and which has enabled me to develop and practice the skills which I will need to continue teaching French classes for children (and to motivate me to keep using French with my own kids)!  

some of my Reading Buddies
more Reading Buddies
But first, I'm going to catch up on my sleep.  That crazy koala bear toddler still isn't sleeping through the night.
but we love her anyway


  1. Wow! That's an amazing timeline. You sure have done a lot and I hope you are very proud of yourself. I'd say mostly for your children being bilingual...but for everything else as well. I've been failing miserably at raising my children bilingually, but I'm not giving up. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Thanks, Susan. No, don't give up! Especially since you have a native speaker in your family!

      Besides, the only people "failing miserably" at raising bilingual children are the monolingual parents who never even try.

  2. This is a truly inspiring story. By doing what is best for your family and your community everyone is a winner, including yourself. Thanks for sharing this story.

    1. You're welcome! I'm just lucky to have a community that makes educating children a priority. Thanks for hosting the blogging carnival this month, Stephen.

  3. Sarah, thank you for sharing this story. It's really inspiring, a helpful reminder of how each small step leads to the next, eventually bringing us to the sort of destination we seek. Supporting the language development of a bilingual child, day by day, is a similar process, with persistence producing results over time.

    Cheers to you and your kids,


    Adam Beck
    Bilingual Monkeys

    1. Yes! We may not see the progress on a daily--or even monthly--basis, but it works. And oh, isn't it cool when it does?! Thanks, Adam.