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Richelle Feigin - Volunteer of the year at VTLO
Richelle has been volunteering for Learning Ally since April 2020. Recently, her company selected her as “Volunteer of the Year'' for her time and energy spent doing community service. With this accomplishment, Richelle was asked to select a nonprofit organization that her company could make a donation to in her name. Richelle selected Learning Ally and we graciously received a donation from Vitiello Communications Group (VTLO) in November. We want to congratulate Richelle on this incredible achievement and highlight her journey through our volunteer program. We want our Volunteer Nation to learn more about her and why volunteering for Learning Ally was important to her.
Richelle Feigin is a Senior Account Director at Vitiello Communications Group (VTLO), a communications agency that partners with Internal Communications, Human Resources, and Business Leaders to connect employees to the workplace and community. She has been with VTLO for 11 years.
Rachel has been actively volunteering in her community for as long as she can remember. However, when COVID hit back in March, she was looking for ways to give back from home while in lockdown. She used VolunteerMatch to search for causes she cares about so that she could use her skills to make an impact on others. That’s when she found Learning Ally. “It was a perfect way for me to be able to volunteer during quarantine and use my communication skills in a new and different way..” she said. In her own words, volunteering has reinforced her love of reading and her focus on details.
Richelle perfectly understands the literacy problem that the US is facing and found Volunteer Nation to be the perfect channel to try to help resolve this systematic problem. “I believe that literacy is the foundation for all learning throughout your life. Knowing that the work that I do helps kids become better readers is very rewarding. I’ve seen videos of students who use this tool and there is nothing better than witnessing their transformation from being shy and apathetic in the classroom to thriving emotionally, socially, and academically.”
In her personal life, Richelle is also a wife and a mother of two teenagers. She has two Dalmatians, named Chip and Dale (after the Disney chipmunks)! When asked what her favorite audiobook is and why it’s her favorite, Richelle recalled the first book she worked on, Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton. “It’s a very inspiring story, filled with faith and love and determination. She’s a wonderful role model for anyone struggling to overcome hardships in life.”
Richelle shared a piece of advice to her fellow volunteers. “Sign up today! It feels good to give back, especially knowing that the work I do turns embarrassed, frustrated, and timid students into confident, engaged learners who are empowered to succeed.”
We are so glad you decided to take this journey with us, Richelle! Thank you for all you do for Learning Ally and our students.
On October 29th, I handed over the keys to the Learning Ally Athens (Georgia) Studio to the University of Georgia. A bittersweet moment, it marked the end of more than fifty years of Learning Ally on the UGA campus. Fifty-plus years of love, laughter, and friendship, and many, many books recorded in several formats. I thought you might be interested in reading about the why and how this came to happen.
First, some background: back in 1953 Learning Ally (then Recording For the Blind) first organized a chapter at UGA, moving from building to building as University and Learning Ally needs changed. By the 1960s it became clear a permanent space was needed. Volunteers at the time worked hard, wheeled and dealed, and got the Callaway Foundation to agree to donate the money to construct a building for us if the University would loan the land. In the end, Learning Ally paid $1 for a 99-year lease. We were responsible for all utilities and maintenance inside the building, while the University covered maintenance costs from the studs-out. The Athens Studio was completed in 1967.
So, for fifty years we recorded in that studio space, bringing in a cadre of volunteers who represented the great variety of the population of Athens. University professors, homemakers, business professionals, school teachers, college students, blue-collar workers, local celebrities and even some homeless people: they all came through the studio and volunteered, supporting the work we were so well-known for. University and community groups got involved as well, especially the Lions Clubs, the Kiwanis Clubs, the Junior League of Athens, Delta Gamma sorority, and First Book UGA.
Over the years our recording equipment and methods changed drastically, and our use of the studio space changed as well. In the 2000s, while still using VRW software in the studio, we also began using GABR software, developed here in Athens by staff member Fred Smith. GABR allowed some volunteers to work from home. GABR was the precursor to EasyBooks (also developed here in Athens by Jay and Eleanor Cotton), which really opened the door to Learning Ally’s entry into the world of virtual recording.
As many of you know, we took all of our production completely virtual in 2017. While closing nearly every other studio in the country, we held onto the Athens Studio as we observed and assessed the effectiveness of our move to virtual production. While the majority of local volunteers began working from home, I continued hosting events with UGA and community groups, and area Lions continued to come in each month to record their national magazine.
Even before the issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw that our move to virtual was the right way to go: we’ve been able to involve even more volunteers from all over the country (and the WORLD!), and we’ve created even more audiobooks than we had in studio-based production years at a much lower cost.
Since the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve found we’re even more efficient and effective than even we thought, and the reality is that we just do not need the studio space any more. All of the events and activities we did at the studio can be handled online.
Although Learning Ally paid no rent for the space, the Athens Studio cost us about $30,000 a year to maintain (utilities, repairs, maintenance of equipment, insurance, etc. all adds up). While we loved the space and hated saying goodbye to the folks at UGA, we simply could not in good conscience continue spending that much money on what amounted to nostalgia. It’s just not good stewardship of the funds so generously given, especially when those funds could be put towards our many wonderful programs that directly benefit blind and dyslexic students, their families, and their teachers every day.
Because of COVID restrictions, I couldn’t just bring in a bunch of local volunteers and staff to come in and have a clean-out party (too bad, that would have been nice!). So, the first thing I did was bring in local staff (and some helpful spouses) to sort through various categories of items: electronics, paperwork, furnishings, etc. Masked and distanced, we each went through our assigned areas and made determinations about the future of fifty-plus years’ worth of STUFF (imagine going through the home after the death of a crazy uncle, one who collected late-model computer and recording equipment, and never threw anything away).
Next, I brought in local volunteers and supporters, one at a time, and offered them items that I thought might have personal significance to them. For example, one of our booths had a plaque dedicating it to the memory of a woman named Ellen. I was able to contact her daughter, Deirdre, and she came in to receive the plaque. Ellen had died when Deirdre was a young child, and Deirdre had many memories of coming to the studio with her father to see the wonderful work being done in her mother’s memory. She was so grateful to receive the plaque.
Eleanor Cotton helped me get in touch with the family of volunteer emerita Ellen Hanna, who was instrumental in having the studio built all those years ago. Ellen was terminally ill this fall but we were able to give her family awards she had garnered and art work she had lent the studio. The Hanna family was so happy to have these mementos of the life’s work of their beloved mother and grandmother. Note: Ellen died soon afterwards; see the November 25, 2020 blog: https://learningally.org/Solutions-for-School/Educator-Blog/in-gratitude-to-ellen-hanna-lifelong-volunteer
The next step was to separate out the tech equipment that needed to be shipped to Princeton, and that which we could donate to a local charity. Once that was done, local volunteer Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman helped me transport items to be donated.
Many, many hours were spent boxing up, weighing, and shipping computer monitors, cables, routers, etc. back to Princeton. (and returning to the store for more tape, more boxes, more bubble wrap, etc.)
I was distressed about the many years of memorabilia: plaques, photographs, scrapbooks, etc. Because we had been on the UGA campus for so long, I reached out to the folks at the Special Collections Library to see if they would want any of it. I didn’t really expect them to want any of it...but they did! It was such a good feeling to pass it all on to their safekeeping, and to know that the information would be there in the archives, available to anyone looking to research Learning Ally’s presence in Athens.
In addition, we had paintings of significant local interest: they had been done by Irene Dodd, the daughter of Lamar Dodd, for whom the UGA School of Art is named. I was very pleased to pass those valuable artworks on to the school for its collection.
As you can imagine, there was a LOT of paperwork to go through. I am very grateful to volunteers Caren Snook and Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman for their help with this task. We were able to recycle a lot, but there were still bags and bags of shredded documents, much of which I used to pack items going back to Princeton.
Local staff and volunteers were given the opportunity to take home furnishings, shelving, etc., and the rest was donated to a local nonprofit for its thrift store. Many thanks go to staff member Christine Hoffman and her husband Chris Sparnicht, and my husband, David Court, who all came to help load the thrift store truck.
In all, we donated:
2 ½ truckloads of furnishings to the nonprofit Project Safe to help families working their way out of crisis;
2 packed-to-the-gills carloads of technical and office equipment to the nonprofit Free IT Athens to help low-income families and new small businesses with access to affordable technology;
50+ years of scrapbooks, programs, recordings, and other memorabilia to the UGA Special Collections Libraries;
2 paintings by Irene Dodd to the UGA Lamar Dodd School of Art;
several commemorative plaques to family members of those commemorated
I threw out as absolutely little as possible, recycling and gifting as much as I could.
As part of our closure, UGA made a $25,000 donation to Learning Ally, money that will further help us in our mission. We are all so grateful for the relationship we’ve had with the University. I know this will not be the end; it will be interesting to see how the relationship transforms over the years to come.
Sometime next year, the University will raze the building and the lot will become an extension of the parking deck next door. As it is directly across from the Special Collections Library, I expect, like many local staff and volunteers, to park there in the future when I attend events at the Library, and remember our days on campus fondly.
Leading into the 2020 elections, Learning Ally recorded a custom project for the state of Montana to assist Blind and Visually Impaired voters in the state --the Montana Voters Information Pamphlet. This was the first year that the State of Montana approached Learning Ally to assist with this resource. The studio that assisted in the past was not available due to COVID. When their contact reached out to us, they were very excited to hear Learning Ally was 100% virtual recording and would be happy to help with their project. This project followed our conventions that are specific for Blind and Visually impaired readers.
Our narrator was Frank Kouri, proof listener was Paul Kurtz, and final editor was Kathi Jensen. Frank and Paul are the dynamic duo, and have been working as a close team on multiple book projects together for this past year. When they were approached about working on this special project, they jumped at the chance. Kathi is one of our stellar proof listeners, and also a member of our final editing core of volunteers.
Frank lives in Anaheim Hills, California and has been volunteering with Learning Ally for over six years. He transitioned to the Virtual Studio from the Hollywood studio, and has over 600 hours of volunteer service.
Paul lives in Athens, Georgia and has been volunteering with Learning Ally for over seven years. He transitioned to the Virtual Studio from the Athens Studio, and has over 975 hours of volunteer service.
Kathi lives in San Marcos, Texas and has been volunteering with Learning Ally for over twelve and a half years. She transitioned to the Virtual Studio from the Austin Studio, and has over 2,600 hours of volunteer service.
Here is a link to recording on the Montana voters site https://sosmt.gov/elections/ballot_issues/2020-2/.
Lisa, our contact in Montana shared, “Your team did an outstanding job, thank you so much! Everyone who has listened in our office has commented on how professional and what a great job you all did…. We appreciated working with you, it was seamless from start to finish. If you are interested, we may have you produce our audio version in 2022, so please let me know if that is a possibility.”
Thank you to this amazing volunteer team for bringing valuable and important voter information to Montana residents!
This has been an… unusual year in many ways. We've all faced some new challenges and, for the most part, we've found ways to overcome them and continue our mission of helping students to reach their potential. The end of a year is always a reflective time, but we can also look forward to our plans for 2021, and beyond.
Learning Ally offices are officially closed from December 25th through January 1st in observance of winter holidays. Though you are welcome to keep working on your projects, contact from staff and other volunteers may be interrupted or infrequent. Check in with staff and other volunteers before the holiday break begins if you need to confirm schedules ahead of time.
We pride ourselves on the fact that we are always changing, and for the better. When Learning Ally began, we served a very specific need for a very specific audience - a niche of sorts. As we learned more about the need for accessible books, we expanded the content we offered and communities we serve. Today doctors and educators are learning more and more about how early literacy develops. They are doing more to recognize needs and provide accommodation long before the student becomes frustrated by classroom learning. At Learning Ally, we are looking for ways that our tools and our volunteers can help children as young as pre-school age.
We've used the phrase "lifelong learners" to mean those who are still learning from our books even after they have earned their degrees. I think we should reconsider that phrase. We need to recognize that a student's learning from pre-school on; through elementary, high school, college, and beyond is the real lifelong learning. When we can provide for all those stages of growth we are fulfilling our mission to provide true access to those who need it.
Next year you'll be hearing more about "Learning Ally Audiobook Solution 2.0," as we revise our apps and form new partnerships with organizations like Square Panda to find better ways to help. There will be new opportunities for volunteering as well. We'll still be recording our audiobooks, but as we expand programs to work with more teachers and parents we want to find volunteers who can help us with these efforts. More updates will be shared as they become available!
We hope you can enjoy the winter holidays while staying safe during these challenging times. Please join us on our volunteer Facebook page to share your plans for this year, or your memories of holidays past. Photos of cookies, gingerbread houses and outrageous sweaters are always encouraged.
Melissa K., Colin S., Elli S., Socorro G., Barbara M., Dianne F., Janeanne R-K., Patricia M-V., Noemi A., Debra F., Sean O., Sue B., Gouri G., Katsy J., Jaclyn D., Patrick K., Julia S., Lena H., Neha N., Yannie W., Aditya U., Rhonda G., Kathleen E., Emma B., Kendra Y., Lamar J., Andrea K.
David Frens has decided to retire after being an active Narrator with Learning Ally for 13 years and logging in over 5,000 hours. In that time, he helped create science textbooks that are helping students with learning differences access grade-level content for school.
In 2007, he began volunteering in the Phoenix Studio and when it closed, he transitioned into volunteering remotely with the Athens Studio where our team had the opportunity to work with him. Christine Hoffman remembers assigning projects and proofing his work. David was one of our earliest remote volunteers, more or less beta testing what would become the Virtual Studio. David always understood the importance of putting our mission first while adapting to a new way of volunteering. Then, when we transitioned completely to virtual in 2017, he joined the Virtual Studio.
He was a prolific Narrator, moving through dense science textbooks, covering medicine, nursing and other science texts, in short amounts of time. David was a neurologist in his early life and he willingly shared his knowledge through narration. His tenacity and knowledge allowed us to close large projects quickly and move those recordings into the audiobook library. His reading interests ranged from biology, chemistry, philosophy, humanities, and religion/theology.
Besides reading for us, David reads fiction and nonfiction for Sun Sounds of Arizona, a radio reading service for visually impaired people.
David has a total of 5,872 volunteer hours and over 1,173 visits to our Virtual Studio (and Phoenix Studio). He stopped reading in June 2020, and finally, he reached out to us in the Summer. Retiring was not an easy thing for him to do, as he is an active retiree, but he let us know he has been finding new ways to volunteer in his community, so there are some lucky organizations benefiting from his generosity and knowledge!
We cannot thank David enough! He has been a star volunteer. His generosity has had a profound and lasting impact on our students. His willingness to share both his time and talent says a lot about him. David’s willingness to give selflessly to help others will never be forgotten here at Learning Ally. Thank you, David!
Autumn is always a busy time, often busier than we expect it to be. Schools are all in session, October comes along with its holidays and soon we're prepping for family gatherings. 2020 and the COVID-19 outbreak have changed much of that however. Though we now need to spend those holidays on extended Zoom calls or meeting with only small groups, we should still take that time to share our appreciation for one another. Let these days be times of refreshment and renewal
It seems they come along a little earlier every year. Remember to inform Learning Ally staff when you will be unavailable to volunteer, for holidays, or any other reason. We can keep our scheduling flexible but we can only do that with notice when things change.
You might have heard me say this before, but the best volunteering is regular volunteering. Learning Ally's volunteer programs are unlike most other volunteer opportunities. They call for some very specialized skills, an investment in equipment, and adherence to some unique rules and guidelines. So how do our volunteers consistently work though these challenges? By working consistently. Repetition is the key to mastery. When you sit down at your computer or stand up at your microphone every day, you're practicing the skills of audiobook production.
When you engage with our guidelines often you internalize them, meaning less time spent looking up a half-remembered rule. Narrating every day builds up your vocal stamina and refines your technique. Likewise, steady listening trains your ears, so that you build an awareness of sound and an audio intelligence from day to day. Even if you're not "working" on a Learning Ally project, you're building those skills and adding to your knowledge whenever you engage with audiobooks.
By making volunteering a part of your routine, and sticking to that routine, your good work becomes better. That's why I'll always recommend that you make that schedule and stick by it. Sure, you'll need a break every now and again, and we know that it's demanding work. But not only does volunteering become more rewarding, it also becomes more fun.
Due to some schedule conflicts with Learning Ally all-staff meetings, there will be no Office Hours meeting on Thursday, November 12th. In addition, Office Hours will not happen on The 26th in recognition of the Thanksgiving holiday.
But it's not all bad news! We're adding another opportunity to join us for an Office Hours meeting on Mondays. Beginning on Monday the 9th, there will be an Office Hours time, earlier in the day. We hope that this additional time will allow more volunteers to join us for these informal face-to-face meetings. Bring your questions about volunteering and book production and our staff will be on hand to provide answers. You can find more information on the volunteer training website and in updates in Twist and hangouts.
Our October Volunteer Nation Live webinar is available in recorded form on the Resources page of the Volunteer Portal and on our YouTube page. We urge you to take the time to check out this excellent event. Our guest speaker Preston Radtke shared his experiences as a blind student and as an ambassador for our College Success Program. If you want to know more about what Learning Ally is doing to support the blind community in the halls of higher learning, you'll find the answers to many of your questions.
And as always, we invite further questions from you. Reach out to us through the Volunteer Nation thread on Twist and we'll bring your questions to our panelists and speakers. Be sure to share your suggestions for other subjects as well, and they may become the topic of a future Volunteer Nation Live event!
Rowel L.S.Y., Metsha R-S., Christina O., Andrew C., Jarrett W., Keila S., Gina R S., Kaneesha W., Charvella C., Letitia G., Tyedanita McL., Tony D., Earl F., Dakota H., Vania S., Jo A., Georgia D-B., Marla B., Kyle B., Ruth A., Jacob R., Iara C-C., Joey F., Patricia M., Diane F.
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.
October is a special month for us at Learning Ally...it's blindness and dyslexia awareness month! This is a time when non-profit organizations like ours call upon the public to take time to learn more about these disabilities and what we all can do to help. Even if you're already volunteering and donating to Learning Ally, there are often resolutions or amendments regarding education and disability that appear as questions on your ballots. Educate yourselves today and you can show your support for disabled people when you submit your absentee ballot or head to the voting booths next month.
Speaking of learning more…in partnership with EdWeb, Learning Ally is hosting special webinar this week: Empowering Learners with Dyslexia to Acquire and Utilize Their Digital Voices. This webinar is a perfect way to kick off Dyslexia month, so join us on Thursday, October 8th, at 3:00 pm EDT to learn more about how using technology gives students with dyslexia greater confidence. Register today!
We all know that Learning Ally's mission is to help students overcome the academic challenges of reading disabilities, but how much do you know about those learning challenges? Our interactive online quiz is a great way to test your knowledge and learn more about these important issues.
Follow this link to take the quiz!
For decades (centuries?) students with disabilities struggled in programs of higher-learning. They faced challenges much greater than their peers. Even 50 years after disabled people first won their rights to equitable access and accommodation, and 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabled students are still underserved by college programs. Learning Ally's College Success Program helps students and their schools lighten the load that our blind and visually impaired students face. CSP provides mentorship and support to keep students informed of their rights. We deliver proven strategies for these students to self-advocate and stand up for what they deserve. Even more importantly, our CSP program seeks to educate teachers and administration, so they can be prepared to meet the needs of disabled people before they attend the school. In a truly fair system of education, our students won't need to do the additional work of advocacy - the schools will know what they need and be ready for them.
Our upcoming Volunteer Nation Live! Webinar will introduce you to some of our CSP mentors, and the work they do to support these wonderful efforts. Please join us for this online event. Scheduling details and an invitation to registration will be posted soon.
Are you on Instagram? Follow the Learning Ally Instagram account to say current with Learning Ally and enjoy stories of our volunteers, programs, and audio books. Follow Learning Ally.
Ileana B., Sindhu M., Bess S., John H., Derria M., Robyn W., Amy T., Darrell J., J H., Ruth H., Cynthia J., Chyanne W., Deirdre S., Sharon P., Bjorn P., Cindy P., Don K., Monifa L., Keane D., Percy H., Sabrina M., Anna W., Terri N., Udeme A., Lynne N., Durga K., Ashisha B.
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.
How do I post messages in the Twist project channel?
Please click the relevant thread and type in your comment in the field at the bottom, then click Post. Please don't start a new thread each time you post.
Remember to use @mentions (@ then type in the person's name you wish to notify in particular).
Where do I find project channels for Textbook Community projects?
We have not yet moved textbook community project communication to Twist. They will still use Google Hangouts which are accessed using the Hangouts link at the project site (for now).
I'm lost...where do I find my project channel?
If you logged into Twist directly instead of coming to it through the project site and can't find your project channel, remember to look in Channels. It will start with Project and channels are listed in alphabetical order:
If you use Twist on a mobile device or smaller screen, the channels may not appear until you hover over/tap the left side of the app.
Why are we doing this again? (I don't like change!)
Our communication methods prior to Twist had several issues, i.e., user caps on Google hangouts, login issues and user conflicts with Google Groups, inability to edit or delete comments in Google hangouts, etc.
We really appreciate your understanding and patience so much as we make this switch!
How will I know when my narrator/listener makes a post?
If they used an @mention with your name and you set Twist to email you when you have an @mention post, you should receive an email notification from Twist when there's a new post. Notification settings are accessible using the bell icon at top right in the Twist app.
When I click on the Discussion Group tab, it pops up a message that says to check my email.
If you're new to Twist, you'll need to click Join Now in the confirmation email from Twist. Click the Continue with Google button and choose any other channels you'd like to join and then click Join Channels. You'll see the project channel on the left; the channels are listed alphabetically. In addition, the Discussion Group link at the project site will work now that you've joined Twist.