April 10, 2018
"I only feel alive when I’m volunteering," says 70-something Judy Stout, supervolunteer and multilingual teacher, tutor, and traveler. After retiring from Patrick Henry High School in 2009, she didn’t relax; she joined the Peace Corps, teaching at a Chinese University for two years. Already fluent in French and German, Judy added Mandarin to her language line-up and returned to San Diego in 2012 ready to focus on literacy. She also made a personal vow to take public transit.
"Riding the trolley and the bus alters my sense of patience," she explains. "I’m in the same time frame and lifestyle as the people I might volunteer with. I’m constantly going through City Heights, and I’m sitting with a cross section of people that I might tutor." Sometimes, lessons begin right on the bus.
For Judy, variety in volunteering is key. “I need all ages. It’s essential to my well-being; I sign up for everything.” And she means it: Two days a week she works with adults and once a week with second graders in immersion French. She reads aloud to two third-grade classes on another day and spends one afternoon a week helping with after-school homework at the City Heights Library. For United Way alone, Judy logged in nine volunteer opportunities last year, totaling nearly 24 hours.
Some programs go on hiatus during the summer, which is how she came to volunteer last July for United Way’s summer learning initiative, Readers in the Heights, a four-week literacy “camp” that helps prevent summer reading loss to 300 children in City Heights.
“A lot of what they need is the personal attention: one adult paying exclusive attention to them. Their parents may be working several jobs and have little time for them.” Judy’s vast experience gives her perspective and patience. “Sometimes we expect too much of these children. Many haven’t had the advantage of being read to or read with.” She’s quick to point out that anyone can volunteer. “You don’t have to be an expert. I’ve noticed a lot of young people from companies volunteering; it may be one of their first opportunities to give back.”
Since it’s not her first time, Judy knows a thing or two about engaging the children. “One little boy claimed all the books were too easy for him; he needed Harry Potter. Well, there’s no time to argue with children, so we found him Harry Potter and realized he didn’t have a clue, but no one was going to shame him. Children can be sensitive if they’re struggling or feel stressed, so we make it fun. We have alternatives. We read in unison, or alternate sentences, or they fill in a missing word.”
More recently, her passion for reading and language acquisition brought her to another volunteer opportunity with United Way, Read Across America Day, celebrating Dr. Seuss’ birthday in March to read to kids in classrooms across San Diego. “I was in a second-grade classroom and the teacher was taking notes. ‘I’m getting so much information from your approach,’ he said. That felt cool.”
When Judy told her youngest students that she wasn’t coming back, “They came up to me and hugged me. It was heart-wrenching.” We left her with a few reminders of her impact on the children she’s helped: A stack of colorfully illustrated thank-you notes from a class of second graders, complete with several white-haired portraits of Judy. “This is great,” she said, clearly moved. “And now, I can check their Spanish!”
Judy volunteers all around the county. What could you do? Visit volunteer.uwsd.com