Older volunteers in local tutoring program explain what's in it for them

Sequoia Adult School Scholars provides mentoring, financial support to ESL students

Volunteering can be a powerful way to engage with others and heighten one's sense of purpose, a recent report from the Stanford Center on Longevity states.

The proportion of American adults involved in volunteering has remained at just over one in four, according to the center's Sightlines Project, published in February, which analyzed how well Americans are doing in three areas that are "critical to well-being as people age: financial security, social engagement and healthy living."

In recent interviews, older volunteers in a local tutoring program said that -- in addition to helping others -- their volunteer work keeps them active, energized and connected to the world.

"It's very satisfying to know that, even though I'm 80 years old and not working, I have a skill to use and something to do that's valuable," said Mary O'Connor, a retired teacher and resident of Channing House in Palo Alto.

Added Atherton resident Susan Speicher, a longtime math tutor, "I have the luxury of time and flexibility, which is helpful."

O'Connor and Speicher are among a number of older adults who tutor and mentor immigrants through Sequoia Adult School Scholars, a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring and financial support to English-as-a-Second-Language students so they can enroll in community college.

The tutors typically meet weekly with their students in local libraries, cafes or, in some cases, their own homes, and the regular contact sometimes leads to deeper relationships.

"We're really friends," tutor Deb Abel of Menlo Park said of her relationship with 23-year-old Raquel Rodriguez, a Cañada College student with whom she has been meeting at the Redwood City Library for more than a year. "I care a lot about her and she cares about me. If she didn't already have a mother, I'd adopt her."

While some of the tutors have been lifelong volunteers, others said they found time only after retiring.

Abel, who continues to work in her 30-year-plus business as a financial planner, recalls a memorable conversation years ago that turned her into an adult volunteer. (She had volunteered with her parents as a child.) Married, with school-age children and a full-time financial-planning practice, she met former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso at an event.

"I'd become very cynical about politics and I asked him how a person like me could have an impact in the world," she recalled. "He said, 'Find something in your own community.' It was just as simple as that. I wanted to hug him because it put my mind at rest immediately, and I said, 'I can do that.'"

In short order, Abel began tutoring English-as-a-Second-Language students at Menlo-Atherton High School.

"It was very simple; it was in my own community -- right at the school my own children were at," she said.

She has continued to tutor, off and on, for years, first with teens and now with adults.

Her time with Raquel, she said, "is so different than the rest of my life. It's a different, pleasurable experience for me. It's really nice to have somebody ask you, 'What do you think?' or 'What would you do?' when they're facing a decision."

Getting together with Raquel, she said, has become one of the highlights of her week.

Lifelong volunteer Paula Collins, a Palo Alto resident who recently retired from HP, remembers volunteering with her mother when she was as young as 7, while growing up in Mexico City. Her mother, now 92 and still living in Mexico City, recently told her, "As long as you're alive, you can do anything."

Collins thinks it was her mother's example that has led her to continued volunteering with the Palo Alto Children's Theatre and the YMCA (she's a board member of both organizations), to translate for Spanish-speaking parents and students, and to mentor students through various scholarship programs, including Sequoia. An HP policy that lets employees volunteer for nonprofits eight hours a month was also helpful during her working years, she said.

Through the Sequoia tutoring program, Collins has developed a relationship with a 32-year-old from Mexico who works the night shift sorting fruits and vegetables in San Francisco.

"He said his boss said, 'The day you speak better English, I'll put you in a day job,' so that's his goal," Collins said.

"It feels good to help other people," she added. "If I can help a student at the Y get a scholarship, or help my student get ahead so his family can be OK, so he can spend the day with his family instead of working all night long, I think that's what makes me feel good."

Husband and wife volunteers Bill and Kara Rosenberg of Palo Alto said volunteering has eased their recent transition into retirement after leaving the full-time careers they loved.

"I've worked all my life in math, physics and engineering, and to sort of quit cold turkey is really hard for me," said Bill Rosenberg, a retired research scientist. "So I've managed to keep a little something going," including tutoring a community college student named Jose in math and physics.

Kara Rosenberg, a retired adult-school administrator and teacher, said the one-to-one human connection of tutoring is key.

"I don't miss the hours and hours of work I used to do, but I miss the people I worked with," Kara Rosenberg said. "Volunteering is a way to make human connections that broaden everyone's horizons -- the tutors' and the students'. It's what keeps us young."

Interviewed separately, the volunteers uniformly expressed admiration for the young immigrants they're tutoring, many of whom hold down multiple jobs and support families in addition to going to school.

"The American Dream is alive and well in these immigrants," O'Connor said of the three students she is tutoring, all of whom come to Channing House for their sessions. "They have a lot of ambition, they're willing to work and they don't expect anything to be handed to them."

"The students I'm working with now," she continued, "they work full-time, they have families and still they're determined to get an education and get the various certificates or licenses they need to get better jobs.

"They're interesting people to get to know, and it's exciting to be part of their life."

Speicher, whose two Sequoia Adult School Scholars math students come to her Atherton home for their tutoring sessions, said, "It's fun and it's inspiring to watch them because they're so dedicated. I don't think I could do what they do."

Information about volunteering with the Sequoia Adult School Scholars is posted at

Contributing Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at

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5 people like this
Posted by Mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 4, 2016 at 10:36 am

I tutor a wonderful Tongan woman thru SASS. She's a grandma like me and i really admire her desire to improve her English and her educational level. It's only an hour or of my week, but so much fun for me!

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