Program Allies: A Case for ABE Volunteers

“Volunteering opened my eyes and my heart to new ideas, new people, and new cultures. I’ve experienced new worlds without ever leaving St. Cloud.” – Adult ESL Discovery Volunteer, St. Cloud, MN

The argument for using ABE volunteers generally tends to focus on the impact that they have on classroom instruction. Volunteers answer questions, support struggling learners, and do small group pull-out sessions. They bring in a variety of voices, viewpoints, and skills into ABE classrooms, and the work that volunteers do with learners, both in GED and ESL programs, is invaluable. In Minnesota, a volunteer assisting 3 hours a week provides over $3,600 worth of service per year, and in 2015, volunteers contributed nearly $4.4 million worth of time to ABE programming.

However, there is an additional role that ABE volunteers play outside of the classroom which also contributes to the success of programs.

Volunteers function as program allies in the larger community. They bring in resources in the form of monetary and in-kind donations, and they spread the word about programs and actively recruit more volunteers to come and work in the programs. They build connections between communities and ABE programs as they share their personal experiences and stories of learners with their friends and families. Volunteers initiate conversations with people who might not otherwise have any interaction with ABE participants or employees, and can serve as valuable advocates for the programs.

In the weeks following an extremely divisive presidential election, metro area literacy programs saw a three-fold increase in the number of volunteer inquiries. Minnesota organizations that work with immigrants and refugees reported a similar surge in new volunteers. While it is too early to see if this trend will continue, now is an excellent time for programs to evaluate their volunteer capacity and continue to develop their volunteer opportunities.

If your ABE program is looking for ideas to make it easier for current and future volunteers be active program allies, here are a few simple suggestions:

  • Create events for volunteers to invite friends and family from the community in to the program space. This generates opportunities for community members to meet and learn about the lives and stories of program participants. End-of-semester celebrations, cultural nights, or holiday potlucks are a great way to get people from different walks of life talking and interacting.
  • Keep your volunteers appraised of programming needs and wish lists. Let them know if there are going to be changes in programming based on funding, and encourage them to write letters and call local and state representatives to express their support for the program.

If your program is interested in locating tools for volunteer management and recruitment, customizable resources are available on the Minnesota Literacy Council website. Wendy Roberts ([email protected]), the Volunteer Outreach Manager, is available to answer questions and provide suggestions regarding volunteer recruitment. MN Literacy Council trainers are also available upon request to provide on-site trainings and in-services for GED and ESL volunteers. To learn more about trainings, contact Rob Podlasek at [email protected].

When we welcome volunteers into our ABE programs, we provide both volunteers and participants with the opportunities to make connections with people from different cultures and different walks of life. Our volunteers are able see the amazing work that all ABE programs do with limited resources, and the strength and resilience of the participants. Volunteers travel to new worlds within the walls of the schools, and they share the power of their experiences with their friends and family. Volunteers serve as valuable allies to our programs, and they strengthen all of our communities with their generosity and compassion.

Andrea Echelberger, ESL Training Coordinator Minnesota Literacy Council