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Michelle Cherry recalls that one story is “always at the forefront of my mind.” At Blackstone Elementary School, a young boy confessed, “I’m just not smart.” As a volunteer with AARP Foundation Experience Corps, committed to aiding young elementary school children in reading, she took it upon herself to help him.

“He became my buddy,” she recounts. As they collaborated, the boy advanced and could read proficiently, eventually reading aloud. Ultimately, she reflects, “he could write beautifully, and when it came to drawing pictures, he would do so beautifully. This from a child who said, ‘I can’t do it. I’m just not smart,’” she shared.

Changing Lives Through Literacy

Life-changing narratives like these are a hallmark of AARP Foundation Experience Corps volunteers. This community-driven initiative empowers individuals aged 50-plus to serve as tutors, guiding students towards improved reading proficiency by third grade's end. The program, which began almost 30 years ago, collaborates closely with local non-profit organizations, delivering a structured, evidence-based tutoring model aimed at bolstering one literacy skill particularly important called ‘fluency,’ or one’s ability to read as quickly as they speak. Volunteers benefit from robust training, peer support networks, technology training, and ongoing assessments, underscoring their critical role, especially in today's educational landscape.

“As we observe the unfolding statistics regarding the persistent pandemic-induced learning gap, as well as the challenges of understaffing and underfunding in schools, some of our most enthusiastic supporters are school districts and teachers in the classroom, who rely on this critical support,” explains Mioshi Moses, Vice President of Volunteer Programs at AARP Foundation. “They wholeheartedly welcome volunteers to join them as another integral piece in the puzzle that secures the educational future of these children.”

Volunteering with AARP Foundation Experience Corps

Volunteers do not need to be educators—only a third of Experience Corps volunteers fit this category. The rest come from diverse backgrounds, including law, accounting, engineering, and government. In essence, individuals from all walks of life can contribute to children's literacy efforts. “What we're looking for is alignment with the three pillars of experience: a commitment to children's literacy, support for the local community, and reinvestment in later life,” Moses explains.

Volunteers have the option to work virtually from anywhere or in-person within the twenty cities and regions where the program operates. Experience Corps volunteers commit to one academic year, and most volunteers return for between one and three years, with many dedicating five or more years to the program.

Local programs provide comprehensive training to volunteers in the program’s evidence-based approach. In total, training may span about two days, but local programs may spread it out over a longer period, not requiring a full two-day commitment at once. Experience Corps volunteers focus exclusively on children in kindergarten through third grade. “There are numerous approaches to teaching children literacy. We aim to intervene at the precise moment where we can maximize impact and do so efficiently,” Moses explains.

Recognizing Volunteers and Lifetimes of Service

Due to the great need faced by communities in recruiting caring adults to tutor students in reading, Experience Corps volunteers have become beacons of hope in their local communities and nationally. This was evident last year when the United States Deputy Secretary of Education, Cindy Martin, lauded the program and its volunteers. “Experience Corps is a game changer for students. To have that one caring, experienced, well-trained, and supported adult for focused time. It changes everything.”

To honor Experience Corps volunteers, AARP Foundation became an official certifying organization of the President’s Volunteer Service Awards, the nation’s top civil award bestowed by the President of the United States. This year, 190 Experience Corps tutors are receiving awards for contributing a combined 30,000+ hours of service to the program.

But there is no greater recognition for a job well done than in comments from Experience Corps students like Gregory Morris. “My tutor makes me feel happy because she is nice to me. She has taught me how to be a better reader.”

Learn more about how to help students become better readers here.

The AARP Foundation Experience Corps program receives funding from AmeriCorps, along with support from the U.S. Department of Justice and various non-governmental sources.

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