Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Learning Ally looks to Make a Difference

Volunteers will crowd the streets of Claremont this Saturday, May 5, for the city’s first annual Make a Difference Campaign, bringing together dozens of local nonprofits in a national day of service. The free volunteer fair and recognition celebration, sponsored by the Claremont Senior Program and Committee on Aging, will take takes place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Claremont Depot.

“It’s a way to make sure the community is aware of all the volunteer opportunities available to them,” said event co-organizer Sandy Hester. “We want to provide easy access for [residents] to learn more about different organizations and ways they can volunteer and give back.”

National Make a Difference Day, the country’s largest one-day community service event, inspired the Claremont Make a Difference Campaign. The countrywide event, held in October, lasts for only a day, but the spirit of service has been a tour de force for Claremont residents, continuing well past the new year.

Since the event kicked off at last year’s Village Venture, retirees have collaborated with local groups in an assortment of volunteer opportunities, from painting benches to serving meals. Those volunteers and their organizations will be honored at this weekend’s fair.

Among the organizations featured on Saturday is Learning Ally (formerly Reading for the Blind & Dyslexic), a nonprofit providing audio textbooks to the visually impaired, individuals who are dyslexic or with learning disabilities.

A New York librarian founded Learning Ally shortly after WWII as a means of helping visually impaired soldiers receive an education. “Veterans blinded from the war could not take advantage of the GI bill because they could not read,” explained Gillian Izhar, Learning Ally board member.

The nonprofit began recruiting volunteers to record textbooks on tape. Since then, thousands of books have been recorded for hundreds of Learning Ally participants. As the program adapted its recordings from cassette tapes to cds and even Smartphone applications, it has also grown to accommodate not only the visually impaired, but those with learning disabilities.

For Ms. Izhar, who has been volunteering with the program for 5 years, hearing the stories of those who benefit from this kind of service reinforces her purpose. She was recently touched by the story of a 23-year-old woman who moved to the United States from Colombia. She lost her eyesight from Glaucoma at age 4. Her mother moved to the Unites States in hopes of giving her daughter a second chance. Nineteen years later, with help from Learning Ally’s audio textbooks, she is preparing to graduate with her bachelor’s degree.

“You look at the stuff she has been able to do and it makes you feel like you are actually making a difference, like you are doing something worthwhile,” Ms. Izhar shared. “It’s the greatest thing.”

Collaborating with Claremont’s Make a Difference Campaign was a natural decision, as the local nonprofit relies on the work of its volunteers and strives to further market its expanded services, according to Ms. Izhar.

“It’s not just about the volunteerism, it’s also about the outreach,” she said. “A lot of people are unaware of the services we offer.”

Books range from history and business to advanced math and physical fitness. Claremont volunteer of 28 years Dick Newton often lends his voice to books about business, economic and real estate, though he says he’ll read just about anything “as long as it’s not too difficult.” Despite the sometimes tedious work, the end result holds special meaning to Mr. Newton.

“I think it’s a very worthwhile type of activity,” Mr. Newton said. “You feel directly connected to the people you are volunteering for.”

New Claremont volunteer Chris Freeberg began work with Learning Ally after attending the Make a Difference Campaign kickoff in November. Recently retired, Mr. Freeberg was looking for the same sort of connection felt by Mr. Newton, and a way to honor his lifelong roots in volunteerism.

“I came across [Learning Ally] when it was still located in the basement of the Claremont colleges, and thought that it was something I’d be interested in. But the job I had was a 24 hour job. I was always frustrated because I could never find a definite 2-hour block for me to volunteer,” Mr. Freeberg said. “I found myself suddenly retired. This was finally the time to give back.”

Though eager to volunteer, Mr. Freeberg quickly learned that recording was not as easy as he had first imagined.

“I’ve always been accused of being pretty loud, but I was actually having trouble reaching the right mark for volume,” he said, “but the staff here is great. I am very comfortable asking them questions. There is always at least one staff member here to help just in case.”

Beyond providing him with a renewed sense of meaning, Mr. Freeberg feels Learning Ally has provided him with a way to help others beyond the borders of his hometown.

“It’s actually pretty unique to do something locally like this that has potentially a global impact,” Mr. Freeberg said. “I feel a certain amount of pride contributing to this effort.”

In addition to those recording the textbooks, Learning Ally looks to recruit volunteers to check the audio recordings for errors and to help with the organization’s fundraisers, including the annual art auction this coming June.

“Participating in your community in whatever way you enjoy it is something that everyone should do,” Mr. Freeberg said. “It’s very satisfying to feel you are a little more connected to those around you.”

Learning Ally will be one of about 18 organizations present at Saturday’s fair. In addition to the informational booths, fair participants will be able to enjoy live mariachi music, refreshments and a presentation on “The Value of Volunteering” by Pomona College Professor Eleanor Brown at noon. For more information on the Make a Difference Campaign and fair, call the Claremont Senior Program at 399-5488.

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