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Volunteer readers to be recognized Sunday

Volunteers spend thousands of hours taping books for blind and disabled persons

Actress and former schoolteacher Jane Seaman of Los Altos Hills has spent 15,000 hours -- or 1.7 years of her life -- reading out loud in an empty room.

For the last 43 years, Seaman has gone to a recording studio in Palo Alto to read literature and law books that become part of an online audio-textbook library for people who cannot read on their own.

She is one of 114 volunteers for the Northern California division of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic who will be recognized at an awards reception in Palo Alto Sunday (Aug. 8). The Palo Alto studio is part of a national nonprofit organization, headquartered in New Jersey, that records textbooks for people with visual or learning disabilities.

Seaman shied away from calling her reading a "labor of love" because it is a trite expression.

But, she said, "It's been a very rewarding personal experience for me in so many ways, and I'm just happy that I'm still able to do it."

Seaman records in four-hour sessions three times a week. She is currently reading a biography of Charlotte Bronte and short stories for a literary anthology. Volunteers typically record texts that align with their expertise.

"I can do words but please don't give me numbers," Seaman said.

Her favorite subject matter is poetry and plays, especially those she has performed on stage.

"I feel I have an understanding of it and can bring something to it that another person might not be able to," she said. Besides, in the studio she can even play Hamlet, she said.

Seaman began reading for the organization in 1967, when recordings were on reel-to-reel tapes. She had just finished playing Helen Keller's mother in a Palo Alto production of the "The Miracle Worker" when she came across an article about the organization.

"We had several blind children in the cast," she recalled. "I just had to develop, of course, a special feeling for children coping with this type of challenge."

Seaman's 15,000-hour milestone will be the highest spotlighted at Sunday's celebration, but other honorees have recorded up to 8,000 hours. Those honored include 32 volunteers from Palo Alto, 16 from Los Altos and 15 from Menlo Park, for reading more than 100 hours.

"It's well beyond time" that volunteers are honored for their dedication, said Trish Bubenik, the group's Northern California director.

Readers at the Palo Alto studio recorded almost 4,000 hours over the last year, primarily on technical topics and some in foreign languages, Bubenik said. Most volunteers are retired teachers or professors, and a few are voice-over professionals, she said.

Readers, who must speak clearly and be familiar with the subject matter, are currently recording textbooks as diverse as computer repair and differential equations.

"It's not a quick read," Bubenik said.

Unlike in most textbook recordings, readers also describe diagrams, photographs and other graphics.

The six-booth Palo Alto studio is the group's only one in Northern California, and the organization is hoping to expand it -- there is currently a waiting list to volunteer.

Host to the largest audio-textbook library in the country, the organization records all major textbooks and other texts based on user requests. The digitized books are available for free to 270,000 people -- including 5,000 in Northern California -- with documented visual impairments, learning disabilities or physical barriers to reading.

A New York librarian founded the organization after World War II -- she could not stand the thought that blinded veterans could not take advantage of educational benefits.

The organization is still passionate about literacy for persons of all ages, including young persons.

The idea is "to be able to ensure that a student who has difficulty reading, for whatever reason, is able to access the written word and learn and succeed. ... It's not just succeeding in school but succeeding in life," Bubenik said.

Comments

1 person likes this
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2010 at 10:20 am

I've been volunteering at RFB&D for several years and it's so wonderfully fulfilling!

If you enjoy the written word, I strongly encourage you to get on that waiting list so you can participate. It's a gift that not only gives to you, but continues to give and give to many others.

Well worth the investment of your time!


1 person likes this
Posted by Michael Seaman
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Aug 6, 2010 at 3:12 pm

This was a great article. All of the reading each and every volunteer puts forth year in and year out is tremendous and very special for all who need their help. I have a special place in my heart for the volunteers because Jane Seaman is my grandmother. I thank all of the volunteers for making such an amazing effort, they are helping many many people and should be proud of what they have accomplished.


Like this comment
Posted by JoAnne
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 6, 2010 at 8:30 pm

If you're interested in volunteering to read, another program, which doesn't have a waiting list, is the Redwood City Public Library's Traveling Storytime. It will train you, and provide dedicated materials, so you can give storytimes to preschool children at day care facilities. It's a commitment of only half an hour once a week and you'll be reading to the same children each time. The difference you'll make in these children's pre-literacy skills is truly amazing. If you're interested in finding out more about volunteering, call Jan at 780-7014.


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