October 17, 2016

Volunteers feel “a complete connection” to student success

Last month we stopped by the Learning Ally studio in midtown Manhattan for a conversation with volunteers Pamela Ramsden, Sue Ann Vajda, and Barbara Mavro. Pam and Sue Ann are traditional studio volunteers, while Barbara has transitioned to virtual volunteering from her home in the NYC area.  With decades of volunteer experience between them, the three have shown great constancy and dedication. This encounter helped us understand their passion.   -Doug Sprei

Learning Ally audiobook narration volunteers

New York City volunteers Sue Ann Vajda, Barbara Mavro, and Pamela Ramsden with Learning Ally staffers Doug Sprei and Jhara Navalo


What got you into volunteering here?

Pam:  I’ve done a number of different things in the volunteering category and Learning Ally is the first unusual volunteering I’ve ever done —

What do you mean by “unusual volunteering?”

Pamela:  Well, you think of volunteering in a food pantry, or folding and stuffing envelopes, or you know, hospital work. But to come in and be able to provide a live voice for the kinds of learning materials that people are using every day — what a great opportunity. Not only is it giving back but I’m learning and I’m enjoying it so much. It’s one of the best volunteering opportunities I’ve had.

Sue Ann:  I started volunteering 30 years ago, when the organization was named Recording for the Blind. And I’ve always had a special sensitivity about the blind because I’m just so appreciative of my own sense of sight and the fact that I’ve had correctable vision. And I just felt like I wanted to give back and that’s what led me to that organization.

Barbara:  I taught high school for many years. As teachers, we often encountered students with learning disabilities. Some students would go to the resource room to take tests or for extra help. Many of them would come to me after school for extra help sessions. They struggled and anything that could be done to help them was important. And they often hated being resource room students because it set them apart from other students.

Erasing the stigma that students with learning disabilities have is an important part of volunteering for me.

The work I do as a volunteer serves the students in so many different ways. Sometimes I can actually picture some of the students that I’ve had in the past struggling as I’m reading. And having been a math teacher, I often read math books. Some people think, “Math is so dry,” but you can read math books with inflection and help them to learn by the way you’re reading the books. So I hope that makes a difference in their lives, in terms of how they’re learning their mathematics.

What does this volunteer experience mean to you?

Sue Ann:  Being a volunteer means to me that I can be part of a collaboration to put a tool in a student’s hand that without which they might not ever realize their goals and potentials. And it doesn’t matter for me whether I’m recording, directing, doing preproduction, post production — I know that whatever I’m doing is advancing the cause of speeding up the deliverability of a product to a member who needs it.

Pamela:  I’ve seen the students. They’ve come here to talk to us on different occasions and it’s amazing how far along they’ve gotten once they got into this program. But I think the connection I have is when I’m reading something, if it’s interesting to me, I want my voice to convey that same interest, curiosity, awareness — so that whoever it is that’s going to be listening to that book, I want them to be as excited about the book as I am.

I met a student who is blind, and he told me that he recognized my voice. . .

Barbara:  One of things that I love about Learning Ally is it gives students a sense of independence.  I think they benefit so much from that. Besides the fact that it’s easier for them to learn, I think in terms of their self-esteem, it does a tremendous amount of good for them. Erasing the stigma that students who have learning disabilities have, it’s just such an important part of the volunteering for me. It’s difficult enough being an adolescent. I think it gets a little bit more difficult with each generation. To have something extra that sets you apart makes it even that much more difficult, so anything that we can do to help just makes it so much better for the students themselves and for their families.

Volunteers Sue Ann Vajda, Pamela Ramsden, and Barbara Mavro help create audiobooks for students who are blind or dyslexic.

Jhara Navalo chats with volunteers Sue Ann Vajda, Pamela Ramsden, and Barbara Mavro at the Learning Ally New York studio

Do you have any great experiences to share?

Sue Ann:  I met a student at one of our events who is blind. And when I introduced myself to him, he told me that he recognized my voice. I literally got the chills. I was so touched. And I asked him was there anything in particular that he remembered me recording that moved him and it was the Gettysburg Address. And I felt a complete connection with him at that point because I felt so honored and humbled by being asked to actually record that. And here was a person, a real live person, whom I had helped—or I had enhanced his experience by the way that I recorded the book. So that was really thrilling for me.

How do you see the impact you’re making as a volunteer?

Pamela:  I do think about the impact that it’s going to have on a student’s success by volunteering for Learning Ally. The hard part is not seeing the student, not having that direct contact. But you know someone out there is going to pick up this book and it’s going to mean the difference between an F or a B; plus giving that student something to hold on to and know that they can succeed using this tool. That’s pretty overwhelming when you think about it.

Barbara:  I’ve always believed that having a good education is a key to success in life. I think students who have difficulty in school are the students who have a tendency to drop out quickly. And by making it easier for them, then they’ll stay in school. Once they stay in school, education is the key. It’s the key to this country’s future.

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To learn about the many ways you can volunteer and help countless students with print disabilities find success, visit the Learning Ally Volunteer page.

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– Doug Sprei


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