Volunteer Spotlight: Meet Hilary

Volunteer Spotlight: Meet Hilary

Enter into a conversation with Literacy Council volunteer tutor Hilary Pettigrew and soon you will find yourself taken by her warmth, humor, and of course, that Glaswegian accent. “I’m originally from the United Kingdom, so I always add that when I say that I’m from New Jersey.” The accent gives her away every time. 

After leaving Scotland, Hilary settled in New Jersey, where she lived for 36 years. Then, “after I retired as a doctor, a general practitioner, we came to Frederick” where the new retiree began her search “for something valuable to do with all my spare time.” She found it with the Literacy Council of Frederick County. “I’d heard about [the organization] from friends and sought them out. Tutoring wasn’t something I had ever done before,” but she took on the challenge, completing the Literacy Council’s Tutor Training Workshop in 2019. When she was paired with a student, Dora, originally from El Salvador, Hilary felt lucky. “Dora was quite literate, very eager to learn, and had a definite goal: becoming a U.S. citizen.”

From the start, Hilary knew Dora was serious about learning as much as she could. “Dora clearly found the time to study on her own” in between tutoring sessions. And Hilary was inspired to familiarize herself with the often-byzantine ins and outs of attaining citizenship so she could help Dora through the process.

It wasn’t long after they joined up that the COVID pandemic hit, and literacy Council tutors and students quickly pivoted to using the Zoom platform for their sessions. Hilary recalls that she and Dora “stumbled through it together,” improvising and using white boards to keep things moving forward. At first, Hilary missed the nonverbal communication that often happens when people are together in the same space, “but Dora stuck with it, she never gave up” even when she came down with COVID. “She didn’t tell me she had it until I noticed she wasn’t looking well.”

Dora was a very committed partner in the tutor-student relationship. “I remember when we first started on Zoom,” Hilary recalls. “She took her pad and gave me a ‘tour’ of her house. And her husband, who speaks no English, knew enough to give me a blessing!”

Hilary was also introduced to their daughter, Brenda, a twentysomething who had been a math teacher in El Salvador. She was married to her high school sweetheart who was still in El Salvador. “She was waiting to get a visa so the two could live together in the U.S. Meanwhile she is working as a hospitality associate and actively attending the Literacy Council’s Workplace English Classes with a local hospitality business.

Hilary planned her lessons with Dora along two tracks, one for traditional English language instruction, the other for learning vocabulary related to achieving citizenship. “I concentrated on helping her build her conversational skills.” Dora works 12-hour shifts for a company in Frederick, driving a forklift truck. It’s dangerous work, but Dora learned enough English to better understand how to do the job—and to recognize its dangers. “She also told me she had become a kind of interpreter for some co-workers” who were mostly immigrants with limited English. She would share the knowledge she had gathered about workplace rules and regulations with them.

Hilary enjoyed watching the changes in Dora as her language competency grew. “She was a little timid to begin with,” she says.  Then, as time went on, Dora became “eager to chat, especially about her family. It was nice to see the evolution from correctness and awkwardness to feeling comfortable” as her skills improved.

“Tutoring gave me insights into what people like Dora must go through and what they must accept. It was humbling to meet a family like this and learn about their various struggles. My own minor struggle to try to learn some Spanish was completely left in the dust.”

The pair’s hard work paid off when, after three years, Dora finally became a U.S. citizen. In fact, she was among several students who were recognized for their milestone achievements during the annual Literacy Council’s Celebration of Achievements event last November.

When asked how it felt to have played a part in Dora’s success, as her tutor, Hilary thinks a minute. “I didn’t really see myself as a tutor per se—never having done it before—but more as a friend. And I’ve always had enormous admiration for anybody that changes cultures, learns a new language, and leaves behind their family to build another life. It was nice to feel I could do a little bit to help one person” to achieve such an important goal.

Dora and Hilary have remained friends, she says. “I want to keep in touch and see how Dora and her family continue to thrive. They are just astonishing people.”

Dora was recognized for this milestone achievement at the Celebration of Achievements event in November!