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by Jim McCullough
When I was a student in high school, I came across a recording of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The highly dramatic reading by Basil Rathbone enthralled me. He is probably not much remembered now, but then he was the celebrated star in a series of Sherlock Holmes movies. Thus the seed was planted, or maybe that occurred when I passed a Recording for the Blind studio in my neighborhood. (Recording for the Blind was the original name of Learning Ally.) Fifty-five years later, I volunteered to become a reader. Better late than never— I love recording for Learning Ally.
I started as an apprentice in LA’s downtown studio on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, a few blocks south of the Wrigley Building. One day I listened to a flawless, sonorous reading and remarked to myself, “Gee, this guy is good.” Actually, it was a voice I had already heard often on the radio. It belonged to Barry Kaufmann, who aired a weekly program about health issues. He had graduate degrees in both communication arts and dentistry. Later we became good friends.
Another fond memory is a trip to Princeton, N.J. to help judge an essay contest sponsored by Learning Ally. The essays were written by high school seniors seeking college scholarships. One student wrote that with the help of Learning Ally, she progressed from struggling for six hours with her homework every night because of her dyslexia, to gaining college credits in Advanced Placement courses. Many inspirational stories like that convinced me, if I ever had a doubt, that Learning Ally changes lives.
After moving to a suburb south of Chicago, I worked out of a Learning Ally studio in Orland Park, Illinois. Its excellent manager, Sandy Elhenicky, once complimented me on my intonation, that is, stressing key words in passages as I read. I blush to admit it, but her casual remark boosted my self-confidence no end. I felt like Sally Fields at the Oscar ceremony, “They like me, they really like me.” Soon a number of individual-reader assignments came my way, many of them books for young adults. I especially enjoyed reading Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and The Closer by Mariano Rivera, the great relief pitcher for the New York Yankees.
Best of all, I got to record Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. With plays the challenge is to vary your voice to differentiate a large cast of characters and then keep notes to remember whose voice you are using. Luckily, I taught Macbeth in high school for many years, and I had often played a Caedmon Label recording of the play to help it come alive for my students. I remembered certain voices like those of the three witches very well and modeled my interpretation on them. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the trick is to listen to any recording of Dame Judy Dench reciting iambic pentameter lines.
In 2017 the switch to recording from home was a challenge, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of recording once or twice a week, I could do it more often, and when the pandemic arrived, I already had a set routine. I like to kick-start my day by arising very early and recording in the quiet hours of the morning. With something to accomplish every day, I can still feel relevant in my advanced years.
Currently I am registered in Learning Ally’s Textbook Community. The rule is to select just one chapter at a time within a project, often a large anthology. That way readers from all over the country can finish a nine-hundred-page book within a sixty-day deadline. Some of the new literature anthologies are the best I have ever seen, and they make me wish I could return to teaching. A few weeks ago, I recorded a chapter titled “Identity and Society.” Selections included George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Shakespeare’s “The Seven Ages of Man,” a portion of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and James Joyce’s “Eveline.” Oh, what a delight that assignment was!
One tip I might offer is to employ YouTube as a resource. If I am unsure how to pronounce an author’s name, I can usually hear it done correctly in a video of the author being introduced at a lecture or performance. Also, listening to an author read her own work is helpful. Recently I recorded “Kindness,” a wonderful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, who grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in San Antonio, Texas. You can find her on YouTube reading her poem. You can also find it at two other sites, read by Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons.
I hope to continue with Learning Ally as long as I can, as a reader or checker. My hero is Dr. Bernie Strauss, a retired professor from the University of Chicago. He recently appeared on television, still recording for Learning Ally at the age of 92!
- Jim McCullough
The next time you log in to report your service hours you will notice a change. Starting February 2021, we implemented a small change to the dropdown menu next to Which Assignment Did You Serve In to make it easier to find your assignment.
What exactly is changing?
Each volunteer assignment will now have a number next to the text. For example, all Literature Community assignments will have the number one next to them, the Textbook Community will have a two, and so on.
How can you help us minimize errors in service tracking?
Why is it important to accurately report service hours?
We recognize that there are many different assignments you must choose from when logging service hours and this in itself can be confusing. We hope this change will help you easily locate the assignment(s) you work on most often and potentially memorize its place in the list to reduce reporting errors.
If you have any questions about which assignment you perform, please reach out to the staff member you work with most frequently and ask them if you’re reporting your hours correctly.
For over 70 years, Learning Ally has had the pleasure of welcoming volunteers to their mission and discovering what motivates them to donate their time and energy. Volunteers come to Learning Ally with a diverse set of experiences, skills, and reasons why they choose to make a difference in students’ lives. For Valerie Fenwick, a desire to learn, her generous heart, and a personal connection to the mission is what kept her volunteering for so many years.
For most of her life, Valerie has been passionate about reading, literature, and acting. After spending several years doing community theater, her friends suggested she try industrials and voiceover work. In 2012, Valerie made the decision to join Learning Ally in the Palo Alto, California studio to practice voiceover.
While Valerie initially joined Learning Ally because of a desire to learn, she discovered her reason for staying with the organization one year prior to doing voiceover work. In 2011, Valerie began losing sight in her right eye. For a while, her doctors were perplexed by the decline in her vision until a specialist determined Valerie had a rare autoimmune disease, Punctate Inner Choroidopathy.
Using her background in technology and computer science—or as she likes to refer to it as her “nerd brain”—Valerie described her vision-loss as if she was losing pixels. The “pixels” were getting larger and larger, caused by inflammation on her retina that was nearing her central vision. Fortunately, Valerie regained most of her vision and is now in remission. Today, Valerie continues to use her ability to help others. She said: “Reading has been something I have done since I was so little and to be able to give back now, while I still have my vision, it’s such an honor for me to be able to do that.”
Valerie has given back to Learning Ally in countless ways. When working in the physical recording studios, Valerie willingly adapted to the technology and transitioned from studio to studio when needed. In 2017, when Learning Ally closed their studios, Valerie jumped on board to continue volunteering from home. Alexis Bourbeau, Director of the Literature Community and Audiobook Quality, described his experience working with Valerie:
"Valerie is literally a perfect volunteer! The care and attention she gives her work is professional-grade, her communication with the staff and fellow volunteers is cheerful and consistent, and she's always living the LA value of self-improvement, eager to share and discuss ways to improve her process. Her work-ethic is also as heroic as the protagonists of many of her projects; she's our go-to narrator for those 600-page fantasy epics! Oh, and she’s a leading evangelist and fundraiser for the cause!”
This year, Valerie is closing in on donating 1,000 hours of service. She has narrated 38 books for Learning Ally, including Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life (Dork Diaries #1) with 282 pages and Winter: The Lunar Chronicles with 828 pages.
In addition to volunteering, Valerie generously supports Learning Ally’s annual Building Books Campaign every year. Valerie uses her contagious energy to spread awareness and motivate volunteers to fundraise. She has even teamed up with her current and former employers to donate to the campaign through their matching gifts programs. By donating her time and energy, Valerie’s fundraising efforts have brought in $12,828 to Learning Ally.
Valerie’s unfailing dedication has made literacy accessible and equitable for thousands of students. Learning Ally is incredibly grateful for Valerie’s support and for the many other unwavering volunteers who work hard to improve the lives of students, parents and educators.
How are you connected to Learning Ally’s mission? Niranjani Radhakrishnan, also known as Jani Rad, discovered a deep personal connection to Learning Ally ten years after being introduced to the organization.
For Jani Rad, summers as a child were often spent at her mother’s work in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. While her mother was working, Rad would spend time in a small recording studio just around the corner from her office. A recording studio, you ask? Yes, young Rad was a volunteer narrator for the Learning Ally Oak Ridge recording studio, better known as Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFBD) at the time. Rad recalls days of racing to the studio, throwing on her headphones, and bringing her stories’ characters to life. Now, ten years later, Rad returns to Learning Ally and her mic with a new discovery about herself.
During high-school, Rad was an avid learner who performed well-academically. However, for as long as she could remember, Rad struggled with test taking. While taking a standardized test, Rad recalls being unable to comprehend the questions in front of her. Rad said: “It’s as if I was reading words in English but the words together in a sentence had no meaning to me.” The overwhelming stress associated with test-taking and the sounds of students scribbling on pages around her had Rad thinking: If I just read this five more times slowly, maybe I’ll understand the sentence. Unknowing the cause of her troubles, the problem persisted throughout college.
It was not until after Rad graduated college that she found what was causing her reading difficulties. While working as a trainer at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rad was responsible for compiling health, wellness, and accessibility resources for students. Intrigued by what she was learning from the resources, Rad explained her personal challenges with reading comprehension to the Director of the Office Of Accessibility Resources. After asking a few questions and a couple tests later, the two discovered that Rad had dyslexia.
Fast forward a few years later, Rad’s journey came full circle when she rediscovered Learning Ally by chance under its new name. Rad has since returned to volunteer, with a newfound discovery that ties her closer to Learning Ally than she ever imagined.
Today, Rad is sharing her story with the world in hopes to empower others to share their own stories. Rad is a professional speaker, activist, storyteller, trainer, and facilitator of a variety of topics. She even has her own podcast, What’s On Your Mind? In the episode titled "DEF-IN-ET-LY," Rad discusses her experience with dyslexia, the interrelationship between learning differences and mental health, and her unique connection to Learning Ally. You can listen to the episode here. To learn more about Rad’s passion projects and to follow her journey, visit the Jani Rad website.
Students, parents and educators are headed back to school this Fall, whether that is in person, remote, or in a hybrid-learning environment. This academic year will be like no other, and that’s why Learning Ally volunteers want students, parents and teachers to know they are thinking about them. This past month, our volunteers came together to share words of affirmation for all those who are headed back to school. No matter where or how learning takes place this year, our volunteers are here to cheer you on.
The words of affirmation have been shared on Learning Ally’s blog, the Parent Gazette, and the Parent Chat on Facebook. They will also be featured on Learning Ally’s Instagram and the Volunteer Nation Instagram and Facebook group. Be sure to follow along as we welcome students, parents and teachers back to school!
To read and listen to more of the heartfelt words we received from our volunteers, follow this link.
This month, we are recognizing our staff member Gigi Franklin who is celebrating 20 years with Learning Ally!
Franklin got her start with Learning Ally in 1995 as a volunteer and has since held many different roles. Five short years later, Franklin became a part-time Volunteer Coordinator at Learning Ally’s Austin Studio. In 2004, she became a full-time staff member in the role of Book Ordering Guru for the Texas TEA contracts. She then moved on to becoming a Studio Producer and then Studio Director by 2010. Franklin had hands in the Literature Community and is now working with the Textbook Community, holding the role of Virtual Production Administrator. When reflecting on her time with Learning Ally, Franklin said: “Through it all, the best part for me is working with our fantastic volunteers! They amaze and inspire me every day.”
When asked what made Franklin want to work with Learning Ally, she mentioned it was a personal connection that originally brought her to volunteer. Her grandmother, mother, two of her uncles, and an aunt have all experienced visual impairments. Franklin explained her motivation was to bring the printed word to the blind and now it has become her passion.
Outside of Learning Ally, Franklin said she likes to read, cook and spend time watching shows and movies with her husband, especially the renowned musical Hamilton. With stay at home orders, Franklin said she found herself with an excuse to stay home and indulge in these favorite activities and even slow down and reflect, which is something she had been needing recently. The past three years had been challenging for Franklin and her husband as Franklin’s mother and father-in-law passed, and shortly after her mother-in-law became ill. When reflecting on these unprecedented challenges, Franklin said they taught her to find joy in every day and to take life a bit slower whenever you get a chance because time flies.
We asked Franklin what is something most people at Learning Ally do not know about her and she said: “I'm pretty quiet, so people are surprised that I won the Texas State Informative Extemporaneous Speaking contest as a Junior in High School. I also worked the first 8 years of my career out of college at the NBC Television affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth on their 5, 6 & 10 pm newscasts as a graphics producer and computer operator.” In addition to her extensive work experience, Franklin and her husband owned a Welsh Terrier show dog. Franklin and her husband competed against professionals and led the dog to his championship. She said, “If you have ever seen Best in Show the movie, that is not too far from the truth!”
We also learned that Franklin is an avid reader, which seems fitting for a Learning Ally employee! From her childhood, Franklin recalls her favorite books to be the Little Women, the whole Louisa May Alcott series, the Anne of Green Gables series, the Little House books, and the Tales of the City book series. Franklin shared that her favorite book to read now is any book she is reading at the moment and the book she reads the following week usually becomes her new favorite.
Thank you to all the dedicated volunteers who helped produce 39 new textbooks in July! As always, we are grateful for your hard work and will to improve the lives of struggling readers. Click here for plain text.
In July, our hard working volunteers completed 78 literature books! Thank you to all the volunteers who contributed to these texts. We are always grateful for your commitment to service and improving the lives of students. Click here for plain text.
Thank you to all the dedicated volunteers who helped produce 110 new literature books in June! We are grateful for your commitment to service and improving the lives of students. Click here for plain text.
In June, 2020, our incredible volunteers completed 44 new textbooks! Thank you to all the hardworking and dedicated volunteers who help put books in our students' libraries. Click here to view in plain text.