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Reaching down to lift up another is a good exercise

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday April 7, 2013

“Every day is Saturday.”  So said Annapolitan Cynthia Palmer when I asked her how she liked retirement.

Before retiring, Cynthia was a high-performing research manager at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  With degrees in biology and economics, she coordinated the work of more than 160 organizations engaged in research to develop better ways to measure and improve the effectiveness of the nation’s health care delivery systems.

“My work was fulfilling but I really looked forward to retirement – not for endless leisure but for the gift of free time that would come with retirement.”

In 2011, Cynthia and her husband, Jim Brooks, a financial planner, both retired.  They loved sailing, so they decided to move from Wilmington, Delaware to the nation’s sailing capital.  They now live on the ground floor of a waterfront Back Creek condo.  The ground floor permits Cynthia and Jim to stay active in gardening; the waterfront location includes a slip for “Neverland,” their Crealock 34 sailing vessel.

They leave Annapolis to live on their boat at least four months a year.  They have sailed the New England coast up to Maine, and this fall they will head down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) to explore Florida, the Bahamas and points south.

But sailing is just the tip of the iceberg.  Enrichment activities abound – including gardening, book clubs, yoga, watercolor painting, live theater, international home exchanges and Eastport Yacht Club.

During the months Cynthia and Jim live in Annapolis, Cynthia spends a large slice of her time as a volunteer for the non-profit Anne Arundel County Literacy Council, where she tutors, one-on-one, in English as a Second Language (ESL) to the foreign-born.

Cynthia was attracted to the all-volunteer Literacy Council because of a personal experience.  Earlier in her career, she lived and worked in Belgium, where she had to learn French.  The transition was hard, but she did it.  She also lived in Montreal for 10 years, where the French they speak is not the French she learned in Belgium.  Because of these experiences as a language “outsider,” Cynthia committed herself to help others struggling with literacy.

Cynthia’s current student is a young woman who came to the US from China five years ago with her husband and son, who is now 12.  Though she earned a degree in accounting in China where she worked in a bank, she is now working part-time in high customer-contact jobs here in Maryland practicing her English to improve her long-term career opportunities.  She and Cynthia meet twice weekly for two two-hour sessions where Cynthia not only coaches her in English but gives her pointers on navigating the business culture of America – do’s and don’ts, work practices, office etiquette, etc.

Cynthia says, “Helping people become more functionally literate in English – whether immigrants or native-born – is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.   It’s rewarding because you touch one person and see a difference.  You see a difference in self-confidence that comes with achievement.  You see the joy and optimism that come from acquiring a skill that will let you get a better job and take care of your family.”

As I listened to her story, I thought of Maryland’s abolitionist hero, Frederick Douglass, who said, “Once you learn to read, you will be free forever.”

Cynthia Palmer is just one of 135 currently active literacy tutors – including many young people – who have been trained by the critically important but underfunded Anne Arundel County Literacy Council.  Lisa Vernon, the director and sparkplug of the Council has a passion for literacy that, like Cynthia’s, comes from a personal experience.  “I was living in Aarhus, Denmark where my husband was on sabbatical at the university.  My children attended a Danish school, where all instruction was in Danish.  As they quickly gained fluency, it was frustrating for me not to know the language they were now using.  I wasn’t able to read their homework, bus schedules, or notes from the teachers. I couldn’t read the newspapers.  I remember feeling inadequate and sometimes even lonely and isolated.  So, I started to learn Danish.  What a difference it made – in my state of mind and in my relationships.”

Lisa told me her experience with illiteracy in a foreign language made her extremely sensitive to US citizens who are unable to read and write the English language.

Lisa said, “Anne Arundel County has more than 70,000 people who are not fully literate.  I strongly believe that those who didn’t learn to read and write in school should have a second chance.  I also believe that if someone wants to become an American and raise their family here, they should have the opportunity not only to learn to speak English, but also to read and write in English.  That’s not only the right thing to do; it is in the community’s interest to do it – to equip them to be productive members of our society.”

Today, the Literacy Council has more than 100 active tutor/student matches.  Most are basic literacy, not ESL, and all receive free, individualized literacy instruction.

Cynthia Palmer, the tutor, is a prime example of using your bonus years to improve the lives of others.  As 20th century radio talk show host Bernard Meltzer once said, “There is no better exercise for your heart than reaching down to help lift someone up.”  And Lisa Vernon, the non-profit executive, is a prime example of passionate heroism, making a huge difference by making it possible for others to make a difference.

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