Volunteer lauded for literacy efforts

July 09, 2002|by PEPPER BALLARD

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - She gently described how some shy prisoners admitted their palms would sweat when they read to her.

How at first they'd sit back quietly and wait by their tutor's side for a lesson to begin and how later she found them leaning in and asking questions - seeming to wish the session would never end.

It was always exciting to watch children learn to read, Marion Chalfant, 74, a retired Waynesboro Area School District reading specialist, said. "But adults...," she smiles. "What courage it takes to walk into a place to work on learning to read."

Some would call Chalfant courageous for walking into the Maryland Correctional Institution eight years ago to volunteer as a Laubach Literacy Program tutor, but today Chalfant is called appreciated. She received a Governor's Volunteer and Service Award at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis earlier this year.


She was nominated for the award by inmate Douglas Scott Arey, editor of The MCI-H Weekly newspaper, who is serving a life sentence.

He said in his letter of recommendation: "She brightens everyone's day, and as a non-resident helping Marylanders she deserves the attention of the Governor's Volunteer Award in Education and Literacy."

After retiring as a reading specialist in 1991, Chalfant was introduced by friend and retired Washington County Board of Education member Sara Zenge to the Laubach Literacy Program, a nonprofit educational program used at MCI, near Hagerstown.

"Right away I could see patience," she said. "You could see the relationship between the tutor and student was respect and patience."

The program uses 12 or 13 inmate tutors who teach two groups of students within two one-hour reading instruction sessions, three times a week. Chalfant served as a facilitator, she said.

She would watch over the tutors and answer any questions they may have had or try to solve any problems they were encountering. But most of the time, she said, her job was just to listen.

"It's so exciting to see an adult on an extremely low level of reading and watch them gradually make progress," she said.

And Chalfant didn't want to miss a syllable - driving to each session from her home in Chambersburg, Pa.

The prisoners enjoyed her return each time. "They were so happy to see another person from the outside," she said.

Chalfant said she was introduced by the prisoners as sister, mother and grandmother. She said she empathized when they told her about family missed and missed opportunities.

Reading was their first step to regain those opportunities missed, as she saw it. The prisoners could attend the MCI school once they passed reading tests and later work to get their GED diplomas.

And even the tutoring books, supplied through the Laubach Literacy Program, aided in instilling inspiration to the prisoners. Chalfant mentioned "Changes," a book they read about people who make positive differences in their lives.

Chalfant fondly remembers the reactions of the prisoners when she told them about Martin Luther King's struggle with reading.

"Martin Luther King's (Jr.'s) father was sitting in a fifth-grade classroom at age 21 to learn how to read," she said. "Don't you think that took courage?"

Chalfant stopped working with the prisoners at the start of this year, but said she will return for special events such as presentations of written work and general program group ceremonies.

Victor Wachs, director of the literacy program at the prison, said Chalfant is already missed by the prisoners in the program. "She was very sincere and interested in seeing them improve in the area of literacy," he said.

"I was happy she got the award but I thought the true reward was her getting the satisfaction out of working with her tutors and students in the program over the past nine years," he said. "And that is the greater reward."

Chalfant agreed and said, "It struck me so many times that as a volunteer you learn more and you receive more than you can possibly give," she said.

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