On this episode of The Retirement Success in Maine Podcast, we are joined by Mary Marin Taylor. Mary is the Executive Director of Literacy Volunteers of Bangor which is a local nonprofit organization that provides free English language tutoring services to Bangor area adults. Why are we talking about volunteerism in regards to Retirement Success? It seems many of the clients we work with have found that by donating their time in retirement to local nonprofits, they have become more fulfilled and find a purpose by seeing their time directly impacting a local cause. But is it that easy? What are some things to know about volunteering in different parts of the State? How does someone identify a good volunteering opportunity for them versus one that won't be a fit?
Mary begins by sharing with us her origin story and how everything from her upbringing, in a small Northern Maine community, to having her first child while pursuing her education, ultimately led her to where she is today, Executive Director of Literacy Volunteers of Bangor. Mary introduces us to Literacy Volunteers and what the organization is all about including the history of the organization and how it was founded. We also discuss the services that Literacy Volunteers provides and how the organization has grown in Mary’s time there.
How does Literacy Volunteers think about the volunteer experience? Mary explains in depth the “matching process” and how involved the process is so as to make sure that the student/tutor relationship can thrive. What are some of the resources available to the volunteers? We learn how Literacy Volunteers supports their volunteers and ensures they are prepared for any situation they may encounter as they work with their students. We also spend some time discussing a couple of the many success stories that Mary has seen in her time with the organization. Our conversation concludes with Mary giving her personal take on what Retirement Success is for her. Be sure to stick around to hear what she has to say!
What You'll Learn In This Podcast Episode:
- Introduction of Mary and her background [2:16]
- Discussion about Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, the organization and the services they provide. [10:30]
- A conversation about the volunteer experience. How does Literacy Volunteers support its volunteers? What resources are available to the volunteers? [23:14]
- Volunteer success stories that Mary has seen in her time at Literacy Volunteers. [35:35]
- How can someone, without experience, get involved in committees or boards? [42:02]
- What is Mary’s personal idea of Retirement Success? [47:33]
- Closing thoughts [49:55]
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Ben: Welcome everybody. My name is Ben Smith. I'm joined by the Stephen King to my Tess Gerritsen in Curtis Worcester. How are you doing today, Curtis?
Curtis: I'm well, Ben. How are you?
Ben: I'm doing well. I'm really excited. I wanted to do the author shout-out today because we are joined by Mary Marin Taylor, and Mary is going to talk to us about volunteerism today, but really the idea around volunteerism, her organization is Literacy Volunteers. So, we have a little bit of an education theme and literacy theme going on today, so I thought the author thing would be the one to go with.
Curtis: It's good.
Ben: From a client perspective, one of the questions we get a lot is around volunteerism, is they're retiring from a career and empty-nester and they're getting a quotient of time that is increasing more and more in their life, and as they get to retirement they start wondering how to fill that time. And, if you think back to our second episode, we had Diane Walsh on and Diane Walsh is talking really about the importance of volunteerism and people as an exercise when they retired.
Ben: And that was just something that really stuck and we said, "We've got to have an episode that really just digs in to volunteerism because it's a scary thing. If I've never volunteered before I don't know what's going to be asked of me. I don't know how much time do I have to give? Do I need to know everything there is to know about what I'm doing? What sort of commitment, in terms of years am I signing on for? What organization is best aligned to what my values are and what my purpose is in life?
Ben: And again, we're a purpose-based podcast here. This is what we're trying to delve into a lot, so that's a lot of the premise we wanted to get in today with Mary. So, Mary, appreciate you being here today. Welcome to Retirement Success in Maine.
Mary: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Ben, for inviting me.
Ben: Yeah. So, we always dig into the question we get from people about, "Well, why did you ask this person on the show?" So, I just wanted to get the audience a feel for who you are. So, maybe you could just give a little sense of your background, in terms of just growing up, and then, academic experience too. What led you to the point of being an executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Bangor today? Just give us that sense.
Mary: I'm from Maine originally. I come from the Saint John Valley, which is right up on the Canadian border, so it's a culturally diverse, let me say it this way. It's a pocket of French-speaking people. That's probably more accurate. So, I grew up with grandparents who spoke very little English, mostly French. My parents were bilingual but at the time they chose not to teach my brother and I French because they had been punished in schools growing up for speaking French, so they figured we'd eventually acquire it which, unfortunately, never really happened.
Mary: So, my background is from this pocket of Maine that valued family, and hard work, and helping other people and our ethnicity. So, I came to the University of Maine, went to Orono, and my education is in communications.
Mary: And my story was one of things that didn't exactly... I had an unplanned pregnancy when I was in my first year of college, and so, I was fortunate enough to come from a family that, again, valued education and respected my decision to ultimately keep the baby who is now 32, and so, they supported my decision to continue going to school and helped me raise Andrew.
Mary: And I shared that piece of my story, as well as my French ethnicity, for a couple of reasons because it leads back to Literacy Volunteers. I was a young woman who got pregnant and those circumstances could have created a very different path for me.
Mary: And so, I recognized very early on how fortunate I was that I had resources. I had parents who had some means to be able to help me continue to go to college and help raise my child. So, they did that. Not every woman in that situation has those kinds of resources.
Ben: And a question just about age of parents, right? So, what age were your parents at that point helping you?
Mary: Yeah, my parents were not yet 50.
Mary: They were still working.
Ben: Working their career and saying, "Hey, we got to step up and help with a grandchild here while my daughter is attending full-time school." Right?
Mary: And my younger brother hadn't yet graduated from high school, so they still had somebody in the house.
Ben: Oh, wow.
Mary: Yeah. They still had my younger brother in the home, so it was really a family pulling together of all of us to make this work, and I recognized the sacrifice they made in order for me to have that, and I know that there's lots of families that would do the same if they had that capacity.
Mary: And may not have it. So, I feel very blessed, in terms of being able to have had that experience. Eventually, I did get my Master's degree but at that point, Andrew was three years old, so I moved him closer to me and I became a TA where I was a teaching assistant which helped pay for my graduate experience. I taught public speaking, and so, it put me through graduate school, essentially, and I had a small stipend and that's how I was able to do it.
Mary: And I'm forever grateful for the people along the way who said, "You're smart enough. You can do this and it will benefit you in the long run." And I had that sense but didn't always recognize what my resources were.
Ben: Sure. Yeah.
Mary: So, from that perspective, in terms of chance, life chance, I didn't plan on getting pregnant at 18, but I'm forever grateful Andrew is in my world. And so, but I realized that that was a chance that could have gone a very different way for anybody else.
Mary: I mentioned the ethnicity earlier because my grandfather, going back to my world in Literacy Volunteers was a man who was born in 1890 in a log cabin outside of Fort Kent, Maine, and he, I think, had a third grade education, and he sold Met Life insurance to the potato farmers to insure their crops. He was brilliant but couldn't read the contract in French or English.
Ben: Mostly French-speaking?
Mary: All French-speaking.
Ben: All French-speaking.
Mary: Learned some English. I remember my grandfather. I was probably 10 when he died, but my mother remembers sitting on his lap and he would say to my mom, "Point to the words." And they had lots of magazines coming into their home. Again, he appreciated and valued education and got his education through people who knew more than he did.
Mary: And so, he would say, "Read to me this article in the Bangor Daily News.", and she would run her finger along the words. And that's how he picked up some English text, in terms of being able to read in English. But this is a man who traveled to New York City, drove his car.
Mary: Attended the Met Life Insurance meetings in full regalia. It was a three-piece suit and the furs. We have these long photographs of all these men outside the Met Life building in New York City. He was just brilliant, but he did not read. He did not read. And he wasn't afforded an education, but he was darn sure he wasn't going to be picking potatoes or planting them, or going in the woods to harvest wood. He wanted to work above the shoulders, not below the shoulders. He was clear about that.
Ben: Okay. So, here you are with your own family that you're building as well as you're pursuing your academic career, but you're also seeing your family and previous generations with a struggle with literacy. How did you figure out that literacy is the thing that that's what you wanted to do, right? Because you could do anything if you got a communications degree and you're doing public speaking and, obviously, which I think you look for it now is, all those things have really tied well together nicely for you.
Ben: But how did you find that? It's really tough, I think, in your 20s, especially, maybe even to your 30s, and I know Diane Walsh said that it took her until her 30s to even figure out what she wanted to do and find that alignment to her values and her purpose. How did you get from, again, you're ending your academic experience to eventually get to Literacy Volunteers?
Mary: By chance.
Mary: Like most of us. By chance. I had had a career in my 20s and early 30s. I worked with adults, for example, who were transitioning back into the workforce, so I had done some training with adults, and helped them transition either off welfare into the workforce, or from a layoff back into the workforce through training.
Mary: So, I did that for about five years, and I also worked in a really unrelated field in healthcare, but I was actually doing their marketing and their fundraising and utilizing my education degree that way. So, at the point where I became involved in Literacy Volunteers they had downsized my position from the hospital I was working at, and at that time, the organization, Literacy Volunteers, was looking for someone who could really elevate the profile of their non-profit in the community so that they could recruit more volunteers, recruit more students, and just begin to build an infrastructure that had evolved over time.
Mary: This is an organization that's celebrating 50 years in 2019, but 16 or 17 years ago, it was in a very different place. So, I interviewed for the position and I admittedly am not steeped in adult literacy. I don't have an education background, but I have had this penchant for helping people and connecting individuals with things they enjoy, others that they can work well with, and then, I had this marketing and fundraising background which we were desperate for.
Mary: And I think, so that was part of the timing and the evolution of the organization at point.
Ben: Got you. And, in regards to, can you just spend some time on what Literacy Volunteers does?
Ben: Why were they founded? What kind of services are they providing, and then, because I want to get into volunteerism here in just a minute, but structurally, how do they provide those services?
Mary: Sure. So, the organization was started 50 years ago by two women who should have been retired. They were 70 years old, speaking of retired.
Ben: Yeah. All right. Talk about finding a purpose in retirement, right? Yeah.
Mary: And that's a beautiful way of saying who these two women were. One of them was Sister Mary Benigna, and I mention her because, as we celebrate 50 years, people have come out of the woodwork to say that they remember her as their seventh grade English teacher at Saint John's school, so she was a Roman Catholic nun who served this community.
Mary: And then, she was partnered, quite by chance, by a woman named Agnes Beckwith who was a retired teacher. And so, they were recognizing that adults in our community, same as today, were struggling with being able to comprehend what they read. And they were finding, probably more so in the late '60s, adults who truly couldn't read. And so, they identified a model that was working in Syracuse, New York, founded by a woman who is 103 years old and still helping to run what was Literacy Volunteers of America.
Mary: So, this is Ruth Colvin of Syracuse, New York. She founded Literacy Volunteers of America in the early '60s and the premise was really, it was a reach one, teach one kind of premise, where there are people in our community who have capacity, who can read, can teach others, know how to mentor and coach. And there are people in our community who have the need to learn and are motivated but just need the opportunity.
Mary: And so, it was a matter of pairing those two and creating a system that could be really student-focused. All about that individual's needs and motivations, and having the community fill that need. That's the model they exported to Maine, and when they, meaning Sister Benigna and Agnes, when they went to Syracuse, New York and they exported the model to Maine, we became the first Literacy Volunteers outside of the home state of New York.
Mary: And the first in Maine, obviously.
Mary: Yeah. So, that's the kind of heritage we have. That's the legacy they left.
Ben: And that model has really worked. And I'll clue myself in here. I did get involved with Literacy Volunteers in a few different levels and that's how we got connected in early 2000's, but this population of, hey, they've fallen through the cracks, or they've not gotten the education level that they needed for whatever reason, and there is a lot of stigma to, I've not really done well in a classroom setting.
Ben: I'm scared of being the person that's falling behind in a group, and those are things that really are stigmas and fears and concerns that they've lived with their whole life. They have that stigma and that concern of, "I don't want to let anybody know I have a secret." Right?
Ben: That's a secret I hold that I can't read as well as everybody thinks I can. I don't want to seem less intelligent, because people think that of me, so I want something that is a little more private. I want something where someone is helping me to my speed and not to a group, which is what really drew me to Literacy Volunteers is you could see that model really working, is this one-on-one pairing and the service delivery point is that I've privately, I'll say that my wife, Kara, is like, "Literacy Volunteers is essentially Match.com." It is, right? It's finding the two partners and-
Mary: That work well together. Yes.
Ben: ... how well they work together. Right? I really work well with somebody that is... This, my dry sense of humor, and likes to do this and do that, and we like to hunt, or whatever the passions are. That you're not just connecting on a need of education, that we're talking about mentorship, we're talking about partnership and helping each other in a neighborly-type fashion, and what an important thing and what's pretty cool about the model is that you see some really great leaps from people, and you see that progress.
Ben: So, I wanted to queue that up just for a second, in terms of Literacy Volunteers and how it was founded is the one-on-one, that reach one, teach one fashion, but it really is a one-to-one pairing. It isn't somebody sitting down, there's a teacher and there's four or five students in a classroom, and here's the study lesson on the chalkboard. Right? It's not that. And it can't be because of the psychological element of somebody that's already failed, or had a failure there and they just really have a tough time overcoming that.
Ben: So, can you just talk about, obviously, when you got involved in the early 2000s, right, in terms of Literacy Volunteers. I'm assuming that role is Executive Director. Can you talk about the growth of the organization from then until now? And talk a little bit about what you've been discovering around volunteerism and what you've learned and lessons that you've ingrained in the organization at this point.
Mary: Yeah. In the early 2000s, when I came on board, I was the only employee working with the adult population at that time, and there was a volunteer board of directors, but no one was able to say, "Here's where you find the policy manual. Here are the files and how to interpret the documents inside them." So, it was really one where I had to wade through a lot of information and come to my own deductions as well as reach out to others who were doing it across the state.
Mary: So, what I was able to glean was we had about 14 matches, so 14 students paired with an adult tutor. Today, we are serving 375 adults.
Mary: So, it's a very different organization. By and large, the model of the one-on-one is primarily the focus so it's one tutor, one student. We have some variations of that where we're reaching out, for example, with the Penobscot County jail and we're going in and doing some small group work with some of their incarcerated women, and so, we're able to serve them that way in order to better prepare them for their exit and re-release back into the community and hopefully not a re-entry again back into... we're trying to reduce recidivism.
Mary: By providing them some education and resources. So, but by and large, it's still that one-on-one model. And so, we've gone from 14 to 370
Ben: So, I think about customer service, right? Especially in the for-profit world you start thinking about, "Hey, I have repeat customers." Right? And, you're selling them something and they keep coming back and buying more or visiting you more. In a non-profit world, the volunteers and the learners, adult learners-
Mary: Adult students.
Ben: ... adult students, or folks that are learning English as a secondary language, perhaps, as well, that those populations are essentially coming back to you and you go from 14 matches, which are, again, 28 people then, right, if it's one-to-one to 350. Now you're supporting 700 people, right, with differing needs, differing wants, different experiences that they're asking for, but you're providing an experience.
Ben: Can you talk about, from a volunteerism side, again, if I'm retired and I'm thinking about volunteering my time, what experience have you been finding that volunteers are looking for, and then, describe then, how has that grown because of that experience?
Mary: By and large, we're meeting volunteers who want to make a difference. And they don't have to make a difference, in terms of helping thousands, hundreds, or dozens of people. They want to make a difference with one person. And in this particular model, this works beautifully.
Mary: So, we work with a lot of teachers. It's probably not a surprise. This is a helping profession, it's a situation where if you are, for example, a retired teacher, you don't have to be a tutor, but when we do meet those retired teachers they're coming to us and they're saying, "I am haunted by that group of 25 students in my class and I couldn't reach the one in the back. I can still see his face. I'm haunted by the fact that I couldn't reach him. And I'm here to meet him again. I want to make the difference with him."
Mary: And that's really gratifying. When you don't have 24 other students to focus on. When you don't have standardized testing to teach to. When you are really all about the motivations of that one individual, that makes a tremendous difference for the bulk of our volunteers who end up tutoring. It's our number one job opening, there's no question there.
Ben: Sure. Yeah.
Mary: There are other ways to serve any organization besides that core mission, because it all feeds into it, but when we're talking about our tutors, they're coming to pay it forward. They've been given an experience in their world, in their life, and more of than not, they feel like there's a debt that they owe and they want to give it back. So, they're not after recognition, but they are after experience and they are after connections with people. And what we find is they create community in a very different way.
Ben: Okay. Can you explain that a little bit? What does it mean to create community in a different way? Obviously, in the state of Maine, and we're localizing this. I think Mainers think of ourselves as being pretty neighborly and helping each other out and when there's a need, that we all try to rally around it, but we do tend to keep to ourselves, too.
Ben: Right? That we tend to wall each other off, and I think you hear that from, and I led with the whole Stephen King thing here, but why is Stephen King here is he goes, "Well, I don't get bothered. I can go watch a movie and I don't get thousands of people thronging to the Bangor Mall Cinemas and to watch me watch a movie." Right?
Ben: There's that. We don't want to bother people too. So, can you talk about this whole new sense of community then, so they're making a difference or they're connecting with somebody that they maybe would never have connected with.
Mary: Never connect with. Right.
Ben: Even in this maybe five miles away, or a mile away.
Ben: Can you talk about what happens there?
Mary: So, when you consider that the volunteers who come to us, most of them are coming from a middle class experience.
Mary: All right? So, there's that set of values and understanding of how the world works. Our students, if they're not good readers, and they've been born and raised in the United States, and went for school for some length of time, and maybe even graduated from high school, but yet, have difficulty with the written word, then there's baggage there and they're probably, more than half the time, living in poverty, because there is a strong correlation between low literacy and those who are having a difficult time supporting themselves and their families. It's just...
Mary: And you can imagine. We all say education is key.
Mary: Correct. So, there's that element. So, there is social class that factors into it. There's also, we haven't talked a lot about it, but the other portion of our business at Literacy Volunteers is we serve immigrants. So, if you've come from another country and you don't know how to speak English, obviously, you may not know how to read it either, so we're helping you with language skills in general, along with culture and understanding systems that are unfamiliar to you because you grew up in Bangladesh and they do things differently in Russia too.
Mary: So, those, again, are differences that we're helping people navigate. So, in the course of our daily interactions, we don't often seek people who are tremendously different from us.
Curtis: That's right.
Mary: So, we have a comfort level, we have a circle, and it's tight. And we're going to stay within that track, we're going to stay within that group of people, and so, when we're pairing individuals, there's often a curiosity for the volunteer to say, "Okay, yeah. I think I'd like to help somebody. I recognize it will mean that this person has a very different life experience because they were raised in Guatemala, or because they never graduated from high school and had to work in very different types of jobs than I've had to."
Mary: But, they're ultimately, through that, there is an understanding that begins to build, that we're not very different. Sometimes there are stark differences where we say, "Okay, what would somebody act like that? Why would somebody make that decision? It's not one I would make." And then, if you explore that you'd say, "Well, because I was raised this way, or this is what I've come to know in my experience. That's not safe, or I'll be judged." Whatever it is.
Mary: So, that's the fascinating part. So, we do a lot of work around culture.
Ben: And I want to ask a question there. So, if I'm volunteering to be a tutor, right, because I have that motivation to, I want to make a difference in someone's life. Right? I want to make, not only just a difference, maybe a profound difference, and that's a really valuable use of my time. Again, I'm retired and this is something that I'm really interested in.
Ben: But that person is from Guatemala, or this person's from Bangladesh, or they're from China. I don't speak Chinese. I don't speak Spanish. I don't-
Mary: Correct. Most don't.
Ben: I don't know those cultures. Or also, here's somebody, they're below the poverty line.
Ben: Right? And maybe they're having challenges that I have not even met.
Mary: Aware of.
Ben: Or are aware of or thought of before and, how I am the best resource to help them because I'm not the expert in this, and I'm came to you as Literacy Volunteer, thinking about the reading experience, but there's so much there that I have to also deliver and I'm scared? Right? I'm scared. Can I even do this? Can you talk about, obviously, that's not the first time someone has probably made that point.
Ben: How do you as an organization support somebody to go from, "Hey, I raised my hand. I'm raising my hand right now. I'm signing up for this challenge because I can see the impact it can have." Now, day one, I look at this and go, "This is way more than I ever thought it could be of a challenge." How do you support them?
Mary: I think what's so important for any organization who has volunteers come to them is to be up-front about what is expected of the role. And so, more importantly for us than what your pedigree is, what your educational background is, how may years of experience you have is, do you bring certain characteristics to the table, because that's really where the rubber will meet the road?
Mary: So, it's stuff like, are you flexible? Do you have an open mind? Are you patient? Do you enjoy coaching kinds of activities or mentoring? Do you leave your judgment at the door? All of those things are far more important to us than your ability to operate at a high level in your world of work or education, et cetera. Those are far more important.
Mary: So, in terms of alleviating any anxiety that volunteers would have about whether or not they could do this, we have training. And so, at least in our organization, it's not insignificant. We ask for about 14 or 15 hours of training prior to being matched with a tutor. So, there is ample opportunity for you to be given the tools of the trade and also heighten your awareness around cultural differences that you may be presented with when you're matched with your student from Levant or your student from Columbia.
Mary: So, and I think, armed with that type of training, along with the fact that another way we support volunteers is we pair them with their own mentor. So, we have a committee that's dedicated to supporting our newest volunteer tutors. So, they would be a one-on-one tutor match that's going to reach out to that new tutor and say, "I understand that you've started meeting with your student. I'm here for these types of things. Would you like to meet? Do you want me on speed dial for that call in the evening? What do you need from me, but I'm here to serve you and help?"
Ben: Because, I can see where a lot of these pairings where I'm paired with somebody that, again, in a culture, or a relationship that is very new to me and my whole life, and you're meeting in a safe place. Right? So, you're meeting, whether it would be a library, you're meeting in certain locales which are public, so everybody is safe there.
Ben: But, here's a situation where somebody says, "Hey, I'm new to this country and I need to drive to my job.", because Maine is a very rural state, and to drive to earn income I need a driver's license, which has, maybe, a written portion to it.
Mary: Sure does.
Ben: In addition to the actual road test.
Ben: But if I can't read... So, here's a very real example. I need to drive. Here's a driver's test that I need to start preparing for, and not just memorizing an answer, I need to actually know what it's asking-
Mary: Understand it.
Ben: ... and what it means to be safe on the road. In those sorts of scenarios, is that something where they're coming to the peer tutor and saying, "Hey, what do you got around this?" Or, "Here's a need they're expressing to me and they want to start here, because I want to start where they are, not start where I want to teach them seventh grade conjunctions."
Ben: I've got to do something that they're trying to meet as a demand. How do you support these random things that are coming up to make sure that, a), the student is getting what they need, and also, the tutor is able to actually express it.
Mary: So, I would say that in addition to those tutor-mentors and the training, we do have a curriculum library where we would have materials available for volunteers to borrow, for example. And we have a staff that is available to them to navigate some of those initial questions. People do become more reliant on their experience, become more confident that they have this ability to do this. If you've raised teenagers, you're helping them navigate new systems all the time as they become adults.
Mary: So, these are things that you inherently do, and people do gain confidence through that, but we would have resources, we would have people on staff, as well as individuals who are volunteering to support as well.
Ben: So, that's where I want to make sure that, again, the audience has this as a point, right? If I'm volunteering, I'm going to a volunteer organization, there's lot of different sizes of organizations out there to be working with, in terms of your volunteer time, right?
Ben: So, you can have very, very large organizations that you could be helping out, and there's specific roles there. And then, also very small and I have found, in my experience, and I've done a lot of committee and board work with my volunteer experience, is I think it needs to be large enough to have those resources there so that I feel empowered that I know if I have a question, or I need to make a decision, or I need help in a certain area, that the organization has already thought through all of these things.
Ben: Because if it's so loose and everyone is doing whatever they want, and if you're doing a one-on-one tutoring and this person is teaching it completely differently, it may be leaving a bad experience to that student that has overcome this stigma even to step through this door today to sit down with me, and I don't provide a good experience because, again, you want people to express their personality in helping to match people, but they need to be providing a certain level of quality too, right?
Ben: So, I think there's this, in the world of volunteerism, is making sure that the place you're getting into, for me, that was always very important that I'm stepping into a place that has a little bit of structure and they're really taken it professionally and seriously about setting this up for success for the people that you're bringing in.
Mary: I think for us, that sense of quality will go back to the matching process. So, our staff gets to know those new volunteers, as well as those students who have asked for help. And we do a significant intake with the student to know what kinds of barriers that are preventing them from being successful, or have prevented them in the past. And we're spending time with those volunteers in training.
Mary: And so, through conversation and group participation, discussions, et cetera, we're getting a sense as to who they might work best with, what kinds of tolerances they have, where their comforts are. And, to the best of our ability, we're going to be pairing them and matching them with individuals who we think they'll be successful with, because at that point, they're such tremendous resources, the volunteer, because they've invested the time and they have the willingness to serve, and the student, because you're right. It may have taken them years to walk through the door or call us.
Mary: Because of the shame that comes with not being able to do something that inherently everybody does.
Mary: So, we really honor both parties, and while the matching process is not foolproof, we're dealing with humans, we are more than willing to re-match if they meet a couple of times and they say, "I just don't think we can work together for X, Y, Z reasons." We'll re-match, and there's no harm, no foul. This is a people's game.
Mary: So, we understand that. But I do think it goes back to matching. If we think that someone will be set up for success, we're not going to push that.
Ben: Right. Yup. Again, I do want to keep going on the volunteer experience for another second here. You talked about the need for retirees to really feel a profound difference, right? So, they're making a difference in someone's life. Can you just talk about that theme since the early 2000s until now in your role of, how has that been the same for that new volunteer coming in to the organization and saying, "This is what I'm looking for."?
Ben: But is there anything that's changed there? Is there something where maybe you're seeing they want... Maybe there's an attention thing, or maybe there's other needs or things that you're seeing that they said, "Yeah, I want to make a difference but also I want to feel something in addition to that."? Has that happened?
Mary: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, this is going to be anecdotal. We talked a little bit about-
Ben: Yes. In general, right?
Mary: Yes, generalized. I would say that this is not a group of people, we're not a high-profile non-profit. So, people don't necessarily come to us looking for a status symbol. "Yeah, I'm on the board of Literacy Volunteers of Bangor." It doesn't have the same cachet as a medical center, for example.
Ben: Sure. Yeah.
Mary: And I get that. And we're completely fine with that. So, people who come to us tend to want to make a difference and that hasn't changed.
Mary: And everybody's motivated slightly differently, but I can tell you, it's not the recognition, even though we do provide it. What I would say is that it's the connectedness, the connections that people make. So, for some, the connection with their one person is beautiful. "All I needed. This is what I wanted. I'm going to stay here for years. I love this person. We spend Thanksgiving together. This is my person."
Mary: Others, they come and they say, "I need to connect with other people like me.", and so, they might dive a little deeper and say, "Let's get involved in a committee. I'd really like to support new tutors, for example, and work with that group, because that seems to fit my need to meet new people in this community or be challenged intellectually to do more."
Ben: Yup. Well, and we had an episode recently with Dr. Cliff Singer, right, from Northern Light Health Acadia Hospital, and one of the things we were talking about is, I think there's an assumption that mortality is lot of the fear that people face in retirement, and it's really not. It's around dependency, is that as we are aging, we're very scared of being more and more dependent on everybody, and so, we don't want to be a burden, we don't want to impose on other people.
Ben: So, and especially in Maine, it's tough because of our geographic distances that we face. And where you have, I think what's really cool is volunteerism as a concept, is what you're expressing from a community, is that maybe my kids have moved away. Maybe I've lost my loved one. All of these things, you have family changes in your life and, again, or my friends moved away. They moved to Florida.
Ben: All these things. And you can see where your community that has been a part of you, and your family as a community, is maybe chipped away here or there-
Mary: And you have to create new ones.
Ben: And you have to create new, right? And here's where, by also volunteering and plugging into a community, I can see where I have worth. I can see where I have a purpose. I can see where I'm making a difference, and I can actually see a difference. I think that's a hard thing too with a lot of the soft skills that we have, whether it be I'm serving coffee at a coffee store, or I'm selling an accounting service, or whatever, is that you don't really see a change. It's really tough to see, well, I have actually made things better or worse, I don't know. And if you could actually sit down with somebody and say, "Hey, from the moment I started with you to now, here's the change, here's their family progress."
Ben: And I want to just take a second, because there is so, so many phenomenal stories that I've heard coming out of Literacy Volunteers. I want to talk, part of this show, I want to inspire. I want people to get inspired from, "Hey, I was able to volunteer and, not only just I got something out of me that I was able to get community, and I was able to limit some of the dependency and create this feeling for myself."
Ben: Can you just talk about some of the success stories, maybe just one or two, either side, whether it be English as a secondary language, or the basic literacy side, of ones that, for three to five minutes, we can walk into?
Mary: Yeah. I'll use a story that I often tell, but it has the longevity factor. We've served Steve for about 15 years. He just recently moved away and that's why we no longer serve him.
Mary: So, he came on in 2004 just about the time I did.
Mary: And so, this is a young man who had a family and he worked three jobs. He worked a swing shift at a bakery, he delivered newspaper and slept a few hours, and then, cleaned offices. So, he had three part-time jobs to eke out a living, and described himself as a military brat who moved around a lot, and in the process of moving over and over again, just never quite caught up when he did that move.
Mary: And so, his reading level was at a fifth grade reading level despite the fact that he had graduated from high school. He was pretty clear, and I always admire Steve for this. He always said, "If I read better, I'd be able to get a better job, which would afford my family different opportunities. I'd be home with them more, as well."
Mary: So, he made that leap, that connection, asked for a tutor and sleep-deprived Steve, in a very short amount of time went from fifth grade reading level to 12th grade reading level. And then, continued with us and said, "Well, Mary, what can we do now? Do you think I'm done?" And I'm like, "Steve, you're calling the shots." To train, you're driving.
Mary: And so, he just identified different things. So, at one point it was preparing for a different type of job. At another point, he wanted to navigate a legal process so he could adopt a son he was raising. And so, a volunteer helped him with that. At one point he became active in his church and was having difficulty reading the Bible. It's not the easiest text to absorb.
Ben: Yeah, for anybody.
Mary: So, we had another tutor for that. He became a homeowner in the process, and so, there's just so many things that Steve was able to do as a result of better reading. It really improved his whole world, his whole life. He became much more active with his children's education, learned how to advocate for his children in school, served on our board of directors, and reminded everybody about really where this was at and what was important, and how people factored in. How the people we serve factored in.
Mary: So, just did our organization an incredible service and was really proud to be able to give it back.
Ben: And I'm thinking of another story, and one volunteer. His name is Phil.
Ben: And would just love for you to talk about Phil's arc, in terms of you knowing Phil as a volunteer and his tutoring experience.
Mary: Phil has probably been around as long as Steve has, so I think I met Phil in 2004.
Mary: He's an English language tutor. He was a retired professor from the University of Maine, and he remains active today.
Ben: So, he was retired when you met him. Is that right?
Mary: He was retired when we met him.
Mary: I think he's in his mid-80s today.
Mary: Yeah. And so, by a long shot, he's served more students over the course of the 16, 15 years that he's been with us than anybody else. And he is a little different in that he likes to be challenged by more than one student at a time. So, he doesn't teach them together, he teaches them separately, but has several at one.
Mary: And so, he has done that for years and, recently, his English language student moved back to her home country, and so, he lost her and he was like, "Okay." And we got calls from Phil daily. "Do you have anybody else? Have you met another student? Is there anybody I can work with?" It was so clear that he valued time where he was making a difference with an individual.
Mary: And so, that is Phil over time. If you go back to, I don't know, 2008 maybe, around the time you were with us, Ben.
Mary: He worked with a young Vietnamese man who moved to our area and Huang was 19, and he had had some formal in English in Vietnam, but could not follow a conversation in English. Probably could read a little bit.
Mary: But when I met him, he understood very little of what I was saying, and so, Phil was matched with him and Phil can be credited by, not only Huang's motivation, because there was a drive in that young man to succeed, but Phil was with Huang when he graduated from Eastern Maine Community College with an associate's in electrical power engineering. I may have that backwards, but it was a two-year engineering degree which rolled into a four-year electrical engineering degree from the University of Maine a few years later.
Mary: So, today, Huang is an electrical engineer in our state. He is a US citizen. He has served on another board of directors for Literacy Volunteers in the area he lives. He and his wife are just living the American dream with their five year old who reads really well.
Mary: But he's always quick to credit the organization and he still is in touch with Phil.
Ben: What's very powerful about this story is that it's breaking a cycle. Right?
Ben: There's cycles that just repeat and we have low literacy skills, and one of the things that I learned when I was there was you get your literacy levels from your mother's side, right?
Ben: So whatever educational attainment that she has achieved is essentially what generally gets passed down.
Ben: So, it's a high correlation there. And you start thinking about, "Hey, if there's someone that's really already struggling with this and they have kids, and it can just perpetuate a cycle that continues.", so what's pretty fun about fun as an idea or empowering as an idea is you're taking this one person, you're taking them out of that cycle and you're breaking that, and it's raising the generations forward, which is a pretty powerful thing.
Ben: I want to just rotate to another conversation too, in terms of volunteerism, is there's one thing just to volunteer whatever services a non-profit is offering there, but I think the conversation's we have with our clients, and there's a question about they've been successful in their career and they want to give back in lots of different ways, and one of the things that they always think about is, "I am interested in helping to make decision."
Ben: I like that maybe I can maybe impact an organization in a larger way and help them, whether it be for whatever their needs are. Whether they're designing the curriculum, or they're helping with fundraising and that's usually about the least popular one that people probably get asked-
Mary: Way to sell it.
Ben: Yes, but you should do it, everybody. You should do it. So, there's lot of different needs of an organization and committees and boards as governing and active parties help the organization, help to shape staffing and structure, and all that.
Ben: We get the question a lot from our population of, "Hey, I've never been on a committee before. I've been so focused in on my family, so focused in on my career. I've never been on a committee. I've never been on a board. Isn't a board for people that are very stuffy and the monopoly monocle, and all those people? The top hats. Isn't that them? And that's not me."
Ben: Could you talk about this, if somebody was going to there saying, "Hey, I would like to get involved.", and they have those concerns, what does it mean to get involved into a committee or a board, and maybe specifically using you as an example and your structures? But, how does that work, and how does someone go about asking to participate in that, or learning more about those different structures?
Mary: So, I think if you're a person considering volunteering, you're going to want to spend some time with just analyzing the organization's mission and see what really speaks to you, in terms of alignment. For an organization like Literacy Volunteers, there are a number of ways of serving, and so, some people, while they intend to serve as a tutor, learn that it's not the best fit for them, and we honor that and we always give them the out.
Mary: In fact, we ask people to explore. If they're interested in volunteering as a tutor, explore this orientation, and if at the end of it, after understanding the responsibilities, the expectations, who we serve, what that might look like, if you're at all uncomfortable, please let us know and we can talk about another way you can serve the organization and the mission.
Mary: So, most non-profits will have committees that can lead to a board membership. For us, we have probably a half a dozen different committees, structures. All of them, they're no rubber stamping in our organization. There's a lot of really hand's on work that happens.
Mary: So, it's anything from marketing and communications to fundraising, finance, governance, and then this tutor training and support, which is really a function of our mission. So, these are all ways that people have said, "Okay, I have this great skillset. I have this history of experience with these kinds of things. Is there a way I can serve?"
Mary: And that's often a conversation that we'll have one-on-one if they've decided that tutoring isn't going to be their best fit. And we really look for ways of honoring their interests, how they want to spend their time, what they like doing. Sometimes it can be individual projects, like research or come up with a program, a training program, whatever, and then, you can deliver it on your own, and that might be the best way for that person to serve. Other people would appreciate the camaraderie of a team and working on a committee and meeting new people and serving that committees focus or larger mission.
Mary: In terms of board membership, we often recruit from our committees or from volunteers who have served in other capacities. So, rarely does someone come from the outside and step right into a board situation, but we're always looking. We have a set of skillsets or experiences that we're looking for, along with, can you represent geographically a certain town, a certain side of the river, in this case? Are you coming from a different ethnic background? Are you a student? Have you been a student? Are you a male or female? We're looking for diversity on our board as well.
Mary: Yup. So, those are things most organizations would be considering.
Ben: I guess a level of advice then is, would you say that if somebody is interested in being part of a committee or a board, first thing is know your why, right? Why are you choosing them? Why aren't you choosing somebody else? So, know why that's an impactful mission to you and why that's important.
Ben: But then, too, is maybe the first step is just sit down with a representative of the organization and asking, "Hey, how does this whole thing work? Teach me about your organization. Teach me about your committees. Teach me about your board."
Mary: Interview the non-profit. Yeah.
Ben: "What are your needs? What are your areas of strength?", and they're not interviewing you, that you're interviewing them. Right, because this your time. This is your, and maybe again, the population we're talking about is retirement, so this is your retirement. This is your 8,000 days, and you get to choose how you spend them, and is this the highest and best use of your time in order to spend it?
Ben: You're in control. So, I think that's important that people understand that. Hey, they're searching for you and you're searching for them and you want a partnership that you value each other both ways in that relationship.
Ben: I would also want to just ask a nice little follow-up question is, we've been talking a little bit about retirement success and volunteerism there, for you, personally, Mary, what would you describe you looking forward, whether it be volunteerism yourself, but what would you say would be your pillar of retirement success? What would mean to you going forward? Again, stretch goal, could be, "I want to travel. I want to something in my life." What would you describe yourself as for your own idea of personal retirement success?
Ben: Community. Okay.
Mary: Yeah. It's really about people and who you can learn from and gain experience and who can fill your life with camaraderie or love or doing for others. Yes, I would like to travel.
Ben: Yeah. Sure.
Mary: Yes. Yes, I would like to travel. I would love a place where I'm looking at water. For sure. I grew up on a lake. I'm always looking for that horizon that includes water, but if you're not helping, if I'm not helping people, there's this sense that there's something missing.
Ben: Got you. Well, that's a really nice answer. Thanks for sharing that with us.
Mary: You're welcome.
Ben: But, Mary, I want to thank you for coming on the show today. This was a really great conversation to get into around... I have a really healthy respect for you and your organization and what you've built over the last 20 years. It's taking just a monumental amount of energy, and effort, and passion, and all the emotions that go with it.
Mary: You remember the early days.
Ben: I remember it. It was a lot of hard work, but I think you look back and you say, "Man, it was fun because of who you're around."
Ben: I think we had a really great team. We all really valued each other and respected each other, and it was all towards that one purpose. And to see that you went from 14 people being served to now 300 and-
Ben: 74. And the statistic rate is one out of five?
Mary: Yes. Are struggling.
Ben: Reading below a fifth grade reading level today? So, there's more and more need that needs to happen. So, when you believe in the mission, you can see that your effort is paying off. I just can't commend you enough.
Mary: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Ben: But I wanted to share your story, and also, you have such a great unique vantage point on volunteerism. So, I thought that would be a really great experience to share with our group today, so thank you for coming on.
Mary: You're more than welcome. Thank you for having me.
Ben: Thanks. Really excited to have Mary Marin Taylor come the podcast today. Mary and I, of course, had a really great relationship going backwards to when I became involved as a treasurer of the board in 2004.
Ben: So, I was treasurer of the board in 2004. I became board chair the year after, so 2005. So, I was board chair of Literacy Volunteers Bangor, as Mary was executive director from '05 until, I think, '07, '08. So, she and I worked really closely together and one of the things, as we were talking about this podcast and volunteerism is, she has seen enough of the executive director roles over time and, man, what a hard job to be able to, a) support tutors and volunteers and people that are trying to get into help with your mission, as you're trying to find people that have a need.
Ben: So, she does a lot of queue management there of, "Hey, I don't want to have too many students that I don't have enough tutors for.", and people get discouraged and opt out of needing help. Or, "I don't want to have so many tutors that I don't have any people for them to actually help.", and they get disenfranchised and leave.
Ben: So, it's, again, Match.com, and I use that because you have to have the same number of matches both sides and from Mary's side is, you have to really understand your motivations of the people and that's why volunteerism was an area I wanted her to speak on with us today.
Ben: But, one thing I wanted to, as a takeaway, obviously, we got into Literacy Volunteers, we got into Mary, and just hearing about the experience of being a volunteer, and then, being on a committee and a board is, I want to impress on people that, look, you are in control of this, right? You retire, or you're thinking about retirement, and you're thinking about how you're going to spend your time.
Ben: And the good part about the volunteerism side is, I think people look at this and go, "I'm not getting paid. I'm giving up my time and I'm not getting paid for it." That feels very empty. But you've got to be getting something else in return, right?
Ben: So, seeing progress, seeing how my time is actually making a difference in somebody, as she said, the volunteers that are coming to her are really looking to make an impact that they can really see. And that's very important from the volunteerism side. So, from that, and that's why I wanted her to speak to it, but also, I wanted you and the audience to really think about this of, "Hey, you're in total control." Right? Is finding out what organization really fits with you, find out what the time commitment is, what you want to do.
Ben: And if you don't like any of those things, then you shouldn't do it. You should just continue to interview and find the right fit.
Ben: Because it's all about finding your happiness here and how you're going to be happy spending your time. So, for me, that was my personal takeaway is I think she did a really great job expressing that.
Curtis: Yeah. And, Ben, you and I talked with Mary, both on air and off air, about this is, obviously, today's conversation was focused around Mary's organization, and we'll push resources out to people just to educate on volunteerism in general, and really find that why, is how it's phrased.
Curtis: You may not want that intimate connection with someone, as far as being a tutor, but you still have that desire to help out. So, there are many, many options available for people to make a difference.
Ben: Yeah, and if it's something where, look, I was an accountant, and they may need help with the financial controls side or understanding that, there's lot of ways to lend maybe expertise that you have.
Ben: Or, developing a new skill that you don't have. Right?
Curtis: That's true too.
Ben: I always wanted to do this. I always wanted to teach, and that was something I never got to do in my life, and so, maybe that's why Literacy Volunteers was the thing, but maybe it's something like I always wanted to help out with the NICU, babies that were premature, and that's an area that I'm passionate about because my kid had that experience, or whatever. Is to figure out, well, how do you spend your time, and that's where from that end, again, as you said, we'll have resources.
Ben: I know Maine Association of Non-Profits is a collective group where you can go and they have some really great training and curriculum resources, but also helping you to find what non-profits there are in the state of Maine, what do they do, who to contact. So, we'll have a few resources like that in our blog, and you can go to blog.guidancepointllc.com backslash nine.
Ben: So, you can go there and to find out more information. So, any other takeaways for you, Curtis?
Curtis: Yeah, just real quick before we wrap up. One piece that really stuck out to me is going into this conversation I was trying to picture myself supporting or volunteering at an organization like this, and the anxiety, if you will, of the pressure of being a good teacher to someone, and then, the added element that we talked about with Mary is they deal with people who may not even be from here.
Curtis: And it was something that I completely dismissed in my thoughts about it and it's just a whole other element, and it just really makes me appreciate even more than I already did what these people are doing, because it's not me teaching my neighbor something. The comfortability of it is I'm dealing-
Ben: Maine's a very homogenous state.
Ben: For better or worse, that's what we are.
Ben: And I think if you were in New York City, this would be a very natural thing for you to be seeing other cultures all the time and interacting with that, and it's just something where we have a few of our urban centers, if you can call them urban centers in Maine, but a few of them have some more cultural diversity to them, and then, you have more rural areas that don't.
Ben: And, again, that might be something that draws you or not, and I thought that was an interesting take, is, hey, this is the way to plug into a community that I always wanted to, or whatever, but...
Curtis: Yeah. And that it's a learning experience for the tutors themselves as well.
Ben: And, anecdotally, I will say Literacy Volunteers has the best cultural pot luck that I've ever seen. It is the best food you will ever eat in a meeting.
Curtis: I can imagine.
Ben: Because everybody just cooks their native cultural food, and it is awesome.
Ben: It is very good. Well, thank you all for tuning in for today. Appreciate everybody's time and attention, and again, volunteerism is a question that we get a lot about and how to go about it right, for me, and I think that's a pretty important thing that we wanted to investigate with you today. So, appreciate you tuning in and we'll catch you next time.