The Volunteer Nation is a community of over 1,000 individuals across the world who graciously support Learning Ally’s mission. Volunteers share their talents to create human-read audiobooks and provide support in roles that help us reach the 30 million students who struggle to read. Join the Volunteer Nation in smashing the literacy divide and bring equitable education for all.
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Written by Jasmine Bao, our wonderful and talented 2021 Summer Intern!
Every volunteer is a keystone in Learning Ally. Every one of us makes a difference in the organization and subsequently the life of others - whether it is because we identify with Learning Ally’s mission or simply want to improve lives, we all have a reason or motivation for choosing to do the work that we do. For Literature Narrator and Listener volunteer Maya Epstein, who began volunteering with Learning Ally around the time of the pandemic a year ago, that motivation stems from her personal experiences with challenges during education. She recounted her own time in school:
“I grew up highly aware of learning disabilities and the challenges they pose: my sibling was diagnosed with ADHD very early in life, and was often not given the necessary resources to succeed in school. During middle school, I developed debilitating anxiety, which has had a pronounced effect on how I navigate learning spaces.” When she finally received the accommodations she needed during her junior year of high school, she became highly passionate towards accessible learning. “I believe education is a gift and a super power everyone deserves -- Learning Ally's commitment to a similar ethos motivates me to volunteer.”
Our passions, ambitions, and interests are often intricately related to the role we play within Learning Ally. The little experiences and influences in our lives inspire the way we go about changing the world around us. Maya’s volunteer work in narrating and listening to Learning Ally audiobooks closely ties to her love for media and the arts:
“So many of my interests culminate in Learning Ally's work; firstly, educational equity, which I mentioned above. Learning Ally produces a huge range of diverse books and stories; representation in media is super important to me. Additionally, I absolutely love reading and the empathy it creates space for. Finally, I am also an actor. Tap dancing, singing, and theatre have been parts of me for most of my life; audiobook narration allows me to make the world a softer place for others through an activity I treasure.”
In addition to providing a space for Maya to use her talents, Learning Ally has also unlocked opportunities for Maya to learn new skills and meet people from around the world.
“My favorite thing about volunteering, apart from aiding students like me, is meeting people across the digital globe. I've had the opportunity to collaborate with so many talented voice actors and listeners I never would've met otherwise. Learning Ally has also introduced me to books and stories I likely wouldn't have picked up on my own.”
Tying into meeting others as one of the things Maya likes most about Learning Ally, her favorite part of volunteering is when she makes a connection with people through the work she does:
“My favorite moments to come out of volunteering have occurred when people discover I've narrated a book that's been formative to them. Books bring people together, and it's so fun to realize I've narrated a book one of my friends loves. We can gush about the stories and characters together forever. Another favorite moment occurred quite recently: receiving an email informing me that a new volunteer cited my YouTube channel as the place they first heard of Learning Ally. It was insanely cool to learn that one of my subscribers is now one of my fellow volunteers!”
Becoming so familiar with and working so closely with audiobooks, it was a given that Maya had developed a personal favorite of hers! Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery was the book that climbed to the top spot in her heart:
“I adore all of the imagery of nature, the emphasis on chosen family, and Anne's adventurous spirit. I'm even narrating it, chapter by chapter, over on my YouTube channel! Are they my least viewed videos? Absolutely. But I have so much fun making them.”
It is equally important to get to know volunteers as who they are inside Learning Ally as well as outside. What do our volunteers’ lives look like outside of Learning Ally work? For Maya, it means running a Youtube channel, jamming to her favorite singer-songwriter, attending high school as a senior, and working at a movie theatre while frequenting midnight premieres with friends:
“It's a pretty fitting job, because I intend to become a film editor one day. My second job is on YouTube, where I discuss the cultural significance of books and film (I was recently monetized! Hooray!). My channel is called bespectacled. I am the co-lead of our Student Equity group at school and a writer: several of my flash fiction pieces and poems have been published. But most importantly, I love Taylor Swift. Much of my free time is swallowed by dancing poorly to her music, to the chagrin of my sister.”
If there was one piece of advice Maya gives to other volunteers, she said: “I'd say to drink lots and lots and lots of tea. It's delicious, and helps my voice feel better. I'm partial to Yorkshire tea with a splash of milk.” Seriously, who doesn’t enjoy the delightful feeling of downing a warm cup of milk or tea? Definitely take up Maya’s suggestion sometime, you won’t regret it!
Without volunteers like Maya, it would not be possible for Learning Ally to be the way it is today. It is because our volunteers are who they are that the stories and connections Learning Ally aims to nurture have been as successful and meaningful as they are. Maya’s story is one that many volunteers can resonate with, and it is a testament to the solidarity and positivity that can be achieved through the power of altruism and human connection.
You can visit and support Maya’s Youtube channel here!
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