Laurie Zarzecki Emelander is the Finance Director at the Literacy Center of West Michigan, and recently celebrated 25 years with the organization. Laurie has tutored for the past 4 years and spoke with Katherine Payne, Literacy Coordinator, about her experiences.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do?
My name is Laurie, and I just celebrated 25 years of working at the Literacy Center. I started as the part time Accounting Clerk, and everything has grown, and now I’m the full time Finance Director!
There’s a teacher in me too; I teach at church, and I’ve been doing that for about 10 years. Also, in college, a group of us were tutors for children. That was a long time ago, but I still remember my little fourth grader. We had some good times together. I was tutoring her in English, helping with her reading and spelling. She wanted me to come on field trips with her too! I think it’s always kind of been there that I liked to do that sort of thing.
Why did you decide to become a tutor at the Literacy Center?
A long time ago I trained to be a tutor, but the timing didn’t work with raising a child and working. About 4 or 5 years ago, Wendy [Literacy Center Executive Director] encouraged us all to get more involved in the work we do, so I attended the training again and I’ve been tutoring ever since.
Tell me a bit about your learners. How has your experience been working with them?
My first learner was Erica, and she was a high-intermediate level when she first started. She was always, always hungry to learn more. She was always doing work on her own and wanted to do more. She was always highly motivated; I think she was one of the hardest workers that I have ever known. She worked so hard that she graduated [from the program]!
Erica contacted me a few months ago to say she was about to open a restaurant. I remember when we tutored, she would tell me that was her dream, and now it’s coming true! It’s so cool!
My second learner, Fabi, and I started tutoring about a year and a half ago. She was low-beginning when we started. She always read at a higher level, but speaking was more of a challenge when we started. Fabi's just come so far in that! We just did an exercise where you evaluate yourself, and she’s doing 5-10 hours of work on her own each week.
What is your favorite story or moment with your learner?
The humor is my favorite part. Being able to see the humor in a situation—you know, even if you’re not both understanding each other exactly, you connect through humor.
There is one time in particular: I know a little bit of Spanish, and there was one time when Fabi needed to take a phone call. She used some word that reminded me of a song, and I just started singing it in Spanish. We both started singing that little song together and that was so special. Connecting through shared experiences like humor or music—that would probably be my favorite.
How has tutoring impacted your own life?
It’s given my life so much more meaning. You know, I can sit there at my desk and try to make a budget balance, or struggle with our grant funders, and then I can sit back and say "this is why we do it." It just gives work so much more purpose. In life in general, too, helping someone gives your whole life more meaning.
What would you say to somebody who is considering tutoring?
We need you. And it’s so worth it! You’re always a little scared to get started at first—both of you are! As you meet, it becomes more and more easy and fun. You get to know each other better and you really look forward to your sessions each week.
If you are interested in becoming a Literacy Center tutor, sign up to attend a brief volunteer orientation online or call (616) 459-5151.