The “bottom line” for retired elementary school teacher Trish Brill of Westfield is to “see results.” That’s why, for the past seven years, she has dedicated a few hours each week as a volunteer tutor for Literacy Volunteers of Union County. “I can see the difference it makes,” she exclaimed. “It feels so great to help!”
This time around Brill’s students aren’t young children, but mature adults who struggle to read, write, and speak English. They turn to Literacy Volunteers of Union County so they can learn to read the back of a medicine bottle, fill out a job application, prepare for the GED or Citizenship test, or read their child a bedtime story. The twenty-five year-old program based in Roselle provides free services to more than 600 basic skills and English-as-a-Second Language students throughout Union County each year.
“The confidence and independence they gain from developing their literacy skills is life-changing,” said Brill.
Some of her greatest rewards have been helping students get new or better jobs, pass their written tests to get a drivers’ license, open bank accounts, acquire library cards, and become US citizens.
Born in Newark and raised in Belleville, Brill describes herself as a “painfully shy child.” “I loved my teachers and I loved school,” she said of her choice to become a teacher. On a partial scholarship, she attended Newark State Teacher’s College (now Kean University) and earned her K-8 teaching degree. She went on to earn a Masters Degree in Student Personnel Services, as well as certifications in both Early Childhood Education and Teacher of the Handicapped.
Brill launched her teaching career in Elizabeth, but then called both the traditional and special education classrooms at School One Elementary in The Scotch Plains-Fanwood district her teaching home for 31 years. Her career focused on the early elementary grades
“I loved that age and the fact that I could incorporate fun art, music, cooking and other creative activities into the actual classwork,” said Brill, who takes great pleasure in gardening, exercising, reading, cooking, and caring for her pet cockatiel. She calls on that same creative streak when she’s preparing lessons for her adult literacy students. “I try to make it more engaging for them with varied activities,” she said.
“I keep remembering how hard it must have been for them initially,” said Brill. “Imagine not being able to read or communicate well and having to find out about the program, call for an appointment, take the initial placement test and then show up to a class of total strangers and have to perform! They are so dedicated. It’s a pleasure to be with them.”
Brill signed up for Literacy Volunteers’ Tutor Training two years after retiring from teaching in 2003. Even with a retirement bucket list that includes learning French, exercising daily, becoming more knowledgeable of healthy food choices, and travelling the world, she discovered that she missed aspects of teaching. “I can do the same kinds of creative lesson plans with my adult students now that I did with the young kids. They are reading at that level,” she said.
According to Brill, Literacy Volunteers’ Tutor Training program provided good strategies and activities, and taught the volunteers how to engage the students and problem solve. “It was well organized,” she said.
Married for twenty years to husband Ken, a New York builder and land developer, Brill meets her students twice a week at the Elizabeth Public Library. “It’s easy, safe, accessible, and all my students live in that area,” she said. “It’s not a problem for me to travel to them.”
So what keeps her going after seven years of volunteering? “It’s like the feeling you get after going to the gym,” said the exercise enthusiast. “I feel great. After a tutoring session, you feel positive and energized, and spiritually healthy. It makes you feel wonderful. It also keeps my mind engaged. It’s very stimulating.”
“They really, really want to improve their lives,” said Brill of the four students with whom she is currently matched. “They are so self-motivated. Learning to read, write and speak English more precisely gives them the ability to feel more confident talking to the doctor, ask questions at a store, and be independent adults.”
For more information about Literacy Volunteers of Union County, or to register for the upcoming Tutor Training class beginning Saturday, September 8 in Elizabeth, call 908-486-1777 or visit the website www.lvaunion.org.