Volunteer Spotlight: Meet Erin

Volunteer Spotlight: Meet Erin

When Erin Runkles was looking for another way to make good use of her skills as an English teacher in 2021, she came across the website for the Literacy Council of Frederick County. “I knew nothing about it, but I gave it a try,” and three years later, Erin continues as a volunteer with the Literacy Council’s Tutoring Program and Parent Literacy Program, tutoring an individual adult learner, Sandra, and teaching English as a second language to the six or seven mainly Spanish-speaking parents in the weekly hour-and-a half-long classes at Butterfly Ridge Elementary School.  Since its launch in 2018, the Parent Literacy Program has focused on helping limited English proficient parents of young children learn the language. The program’s tutors and class instructors work in several Frederick elementary schools that are partners in a hub of community services available to families in need of help building productive lives in their communities.

At first, Erin recalls, the experience was scary. “I wondered, how am I going to help all these people coming from different backgrounds. But as I get to know [the parents], they are very open to asking questions and to letting me know what they need. I’ve learned that just listening to my students is the best strategy to helping them achieve their goals.”

Erin congratulating one of her students with a class completion certificate.

“It’s a challenge to these students to make the effort to understand English—reading it, writing it, and especially carrying on conversations in another language,” says Erin. “When I first began, the classes were textbook-based and more academic.” Now, the emphasis is more on building conversational skills. “We still practice reading and writing, but the most important thing to the students is to be able to hold a conversation in English so they can communicate better with their children, be of help to them with their schoolwork, and be more prepared to land better jobs.”

Holly Bohman, the Literacy Council’s ESL and Parent Literacy Program volunteer coordinator, says Erin’s commitment has helped her to create strong connections with her students. “This kind of teaching is very challenging, so making the effort to better understand how a person approaches learning, and how their culture influences their understanding of another language, is important. And being informed about the challenges of the individual you’re working with is essential.”

“The students in these classes are all learning about living with a new culture as they try to hang on to elements of their former lives,” says Erin. “I’m constantly learning from them about why they want to be there, and what they want to learn.”  For example, Erin mentions one parent, Janet, who always asks for more homework and more hours of instruction. Her growth in her language skills and her motivation have been exciting to observe. “Janet recently began working in a restaurant, so it’s been great to see her develop as a person who is completely dedicated” to her goals for her family.

Erin recognizing the achievements of one of her students.
Parent English class at Waverley Elementary, part of the Literacy Council’s Parent Literacy Program.

The Parent Literacy Program is reaching parents through Frederick County Title I elementary schools—currently Butterfly Ridge, Waverley, Hillcrest, Lincoln, Monocacy, and Tuscarora—that also are served by the Judy Center’s early childhood education programs, which provides many services to families. Janet, who had a baby two years ago, can attend Erin’s class while her baby is safely in the care of the school’s Judy Center. Erin says that “[Judy Center does] all kinds of great things for parents,” especially providing childcare for preschoolers right in the school.  As of this writing, just two of these elementary schools, Butterfly Ridge and Waverly, offer the kind of classes Erin is teaching.

Holly explains that the volunteers who come to the Literacy Council for tutor training and are part of the Parent Literacy Program commit to working inside the school for the school year, educating parents. “Right now, we have classes at two schools, with 46 students and six instructors. There are three levels of instruction at each of those schools: a basic, a one-, and a two-level class. At the beginning of the school year, we do a brief assessment that tells us where a student would benefit most from the class.”

Literacy Council community engagement event.

Literacy Council Executive Director Laurie Fisher says “the Council collaborates with the six schools in Frederick County where we provide support and community engagements, and a MOU with the Judy Centers, where the Council participates as a member of their Steering Committee. Eventually, we would love to expand [the parent literacy tutoring] to additional schools” that align with the emerging community-school focus on serving as both educational institution and center of community life. The schools not only provide services, but they are also run by people “who know our children best and are all working together” to provide resources to students and families currently living in underserved and underfunded communities.

Celebration of Achievements, November 2023

The bottom line for Erin is that people want to be able to communicate and be understood on a day-to-day basis. “It’s the foundation of everything and yet it’s something we often take for granted when we grow up in this country.”  Her hope is that the Parent Literacy Program can keep expanding “so that parents can get the help they need” with their language skills, among other needs. “I just hope we can continue to keep helping more people participate effectively in all aspects of their lives.” To that end, Erin recently earned her Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification, and she is now also teaching students basic English at Frederick Community College. This past November, Erin presented certificates of achievement to two of her students who attended the Literacy Council’s Celebration of Achievement.

Volunteers like Erin are key to the Literacy Council’s mission, Laurie emphasizes, “She is there every week, building up these relationships for us through the students so we can make a difference in their future.”

The Parent Literacy Program is specifically supported by grant funding from Frederick County’s Community Partnership Grant program, and the Women’s Giving Circle.