Literacy Austin

A volunteering story by: Chris Clason

In 10th grade, Lily Clason volunteered for several months at an organization called Literacy Austin, building a library database for their new large collection of donated books. For several weeks, Lily entered the newly donated books into an Excel spreadsheet by title, author, genre, and length, with a yet to be used field for whether it was checked out or not. It was tedious work, especially because the books to be entered were laying around entirely unorganized in boxes and bins of various size and quality, but Lily felt rewarded all the same for being able to help in any way for a cause she felt so strongly about.

The disorganization of the books to be databased meant that halfway through, Lily figured out she could make the process go faster by first organizing the books, and then entering them into the spreadsheet. Once she completed the database, she had to come up with the organization system for the shelving of the books. Afterwards she stayed on for a little while playing librarian, keeping the shelves organized and managing check ins and check outs, but this unfortunately did not hold her interest for long, and she moved on. She liked being able to help, and furthermore she felt personally enriched by the experience because it solidified her knowledge and competency with Excel spreadsheets at a comparatively young age.

The Inspiration

Lily’s true original motivation for volunteering was driven by her high school’s chapter of the National Honor Society’s requirement to complete 100 hours of community service as part of the application for entry. Although the number of hours seemed daunting at first, Lily felt that she should try to find something that interested her to make the task less mundane. Given her passion for reading and her plans at the time to major in the English/Writing field in College, she felt that Literacy Austin would be a perfect fit for her. There, illiterate adults can get help with learning how to read and write to become functioning members of society.

Although Lily came to the organization with dreams of helping others face to face, and go home each day feeling deeply rewarded, she soon discovered that she was deemed ill suited to that task by the facilitators for several reasons. The majority of the people coming to the organization for assistance were ESL (English as a Second Language) students, and this meant that to be most effective, student-facing volunteers had to be comfortable with their language, mainly Spanish.

Unfortunately, Lily’s Spanish was less than stellar, plus her superiors were concerned that the typically middle aged students may feel condescended to being taught by someone so young, so she was disqualified from directly teaching people how to read. Still, they had need of her volunteer services for different tasks, so after a brief interview about her skill set they set her up building a database for their large collection of books. They had just completed a very successful book drive and now required help turning it into a library for student use. However, they had very little knowledge of computers, so they thought young Lily might be of assistance, and indeed she was. They were very pleased with the database she created.

The Aha! moment…

Lily learned many things at every turn of this volunteer experience. Because Lily had only just turned 16 at the outset of her time there, the interview that was conducted was her first of such ever! Although there was potentially less at stake than if it had been for a real job, she learned the first steps of how to conduct herself in such a situation. The next time she had an interview, she felt somewhat more confident because of this.

Next, she experienced her first job-related disappointment by being denied the position she wanted at the organization, despite the appropriateness of the decision. From this, she learned humility and grace in being denied. Instead of pushing the issue or ill-naturedly quitting, she continued in the capacity they offered, respected the decision, and worked nicely with the people in the position she had originally desired. She used this opportunity to aspire to that position, boning up on her Spanish skills so that she might eventually find herself promoted to it.

Finally, she learned technical skills by perfecting her work with Excel in creating the database. Although she had worked with it somewhat before, she was only able to do the most basic things. The process of this task definitely caused her to have to learn new techniques to do it effectively. Overall, Lily feels that this volunteering opportunity was a fantastic experience that benefitted her in many tangible ways that have stayed with her ever since.

To summarize it in three words…

  • Challenging
  • Rewarding
  • Prosaic

Why should you do this

Lily would absolutely recommend that others volunteer as she did, especially as a young person. She feels that doing so can help a young person grow and mature, and give them valuable experience for later real jobs.

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