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2018 Volunteer Spotlights

Use the links below to see specific people, or browse at your lesiure!


Ann Darks

Ann started volunteering at Literacy Advance just this year, and brings much joy and positivity to everything that she does for us. From greeting students with a smile during her front desk shifts, to preparing thoughtful, fun lessons for her time in the classroom, Ann brings smiles to Literacy Advance every day.

If you’re at Literacy Advance during the day on Mondays or Wednesdays, or our ever-busy Saturdays, you might see Ann in her classroom or at the front desk.

How long have you been volunteering at Literacy Advance?

I'm a newbie. I began teaching my first class February 10, 2018. I started working at the front desk this past June.

What brought you to Literacy Advance?


I was searching Google Maps for non-profits in the neighborhood. My goal was to spend my time volunteering and not driving in Houston traffic. I looked at the Literacy Advance website and decided that I wanted to know more. I feel extremely lucky to have found such a great opportunity so easily.

What do you enjoy most about volunteering as a tutor?

The greatest pleasure I find in tutoring is seeing the people who begin the class as strangers becoming a mutual support group in the difficult journey of learning a new language and culture. I restores my faith in humanity.

What's your favorite part about volunteering at the front desk?

The front desk allows me to see other faces of Literacy Advance. In some ways it's like a cocktail party (coffee and tea only) with all sorts of interesting people coming and going. There is the interesting progression of the first hesitant phone calls about English class, the uncertainty of registration then the growing confidence of waiting class and regular classes.

It's fun to see the interactions of learners in the waiting area. You never know what challenge the next phone call or visitor coming through the door will bring.

What is your favorite book?

This is the hardest question of all. It is like being asked which is my favorite child. I'll narrow it down to anything by Neal Stevenson, John McPhee or Terry Pratchett. I shouldn't leave out Jane Austen.

What inspires you?

I'm a gardener. Seeing the first fragile green shoots of seedlings break through the soil and mature into a lush plant is a miracle no matter how often I see it. The courage and determination of our learners is much the same. Courage and kindness are the qualities I admire most.

What would you say to others who are thinking about volunteering?

I would say, "Give it a try." The atmosphere is so welcoming. There are well-organized staff who offer support and structure while at the same time volunteers are encouraged to find their own style of tutoring and other ways to contribute to the mission. There also seems to be a strong commitment to flexibility.

THANK YOU for all you do, Ann!


Carlton Cook

Carlton brings great compassion and a love of people into every class, and his students notice - as do we! His care for every student is palpable and he uses it to create practical, useful lessons for each and every class.

In addition to being a long-time volunteer tutor, Carlton is also a donor. Most recently, he replaced our worn-out coffee maker at the Wilcrest office with a brand new one, ensuring years more hot coffee for countless students and tutors alike!

Carlton, we love you and we're so grateful that you've given us six years of your time and expertise. Thank you!

What first brought you to Literacy Advance?

I’ve always thought that I would enjoy teaching. Also, from my travels, I knew how hard it is to function in a country if you can’t speak the language, so I was sympathetic to the plight of those who come here with little or no English.

How long have you been volunteering at Literacy Advance?

6 years.

What do you enjoy most about volunteering?

I love engaging with my students. They are eager to learn and are a delight to teach.

What tutoring strategies do you often use in your classes?

My goal is to prepare my students for life outside of the classroom. So, I focus on real-life conversations and on situations that are typically difficult for them as non-native English speakers and possibly new immigrants. I also try to make it fun and to develop a sense of community between the students.

What inspires you?

The persistence and determination of my students inspires me. I don’t think most Americans realize how difficult it is in so many ways to live in a country where virtually no one speaks your language. And it’s a long uphill climb to become fluent in English.

In what ways do you think your experiences as a volunteer tutor have impacted you?

I have been impacted in ways both large and small. I feel increasingly compelled to help those who come to our country in hopes of a better life. We have so much to offer, how could we not assist these good people? On a smaller note, I now notice in conversations how much they contain idioms that can be incomprehensible to new English speakers.

What would you say to other people thinking about volunteering?

Simply, take the leap! Literacy Advance will train you to teach ESL and they have an excellent resource library for you to use for your lessons. Tutoring ESL is both rewarding and fun.

Thank you, Carlton, for SIX YEARS of amazing volunteerism!


The Houston Embroiderers' Guild

Here's an extra-special Volunteer Spotlight! The Houston Embroiderers' Guild contacted us late last year with a wonderful and generous idea - they were ready to hand-craft bookmarks for our students.

This beautiful offer came at the same time that we were preparing to re-introduce graduation ceremonies for our ESL students. We could think of nothing more fitting than to present each graduate with a symbol of literacy that they could treasure well beyond their time in class.

The questions below have been answered by Shannon Shock, representing the Guild members.


Graduating students in spring, 2018

How did you hear about Literacy Advance?

I looked for an organization in Houston that helps adults learn to read or read better. I believe I searched for “Barbara Bush literacy Houston” and eventually ended up at Literacy Advance of Houston.

How did you get the idea of making bookmarks for new graduates?

Our embroidery guild is always looking for ways to serve the community while doing what we love best, hand embroidery! Our national organization, Embroiderers’ Guild of America, has encouraged us to stitch bookmarks but we never really knew where they were donated and the thought of our hand-stitched bookmarks ending up at the bottom of a child’s backpack was not conducive to good participation.

I teamed up with a member who was willing to put a new bookmark design in each of our guild’s monthly newsletters and looked for a local adult literacy program – you! When a member hand stitches a bookmark, a lot of love goes into it. While I am stitching I think about the person who might receive it. I am in awe of the hours and hours of time, the dedication and the sacrifice each student makes. Making a little work of art as a gift is the least I can do.

What do you most enjoy about the crafting work you do?

New graduates choose from gifts of books and handmade bookmarks, spring 2018

We enjoy creating something beautiful with our own hands. There is always something new to learn. It’s a way to explore different cultures through embroidery. There are so many people willing to share what they know with you. The best part is the friends we make sharing the art we love.

How can someone new get involved with your group?

Houston Embroiderers’ Guild can be found online here and also on Facebook. Or contact Shannon Shock at


Tiffany Schreiber

In something slightly different, our volunteer spotlight features a nomination we recently submitted to Literacy Texas, for their annual Volunteer of the Year awards. We didn't win this year, but we wanted to share this great volunteer's story with you regardless!

Please describe the service of the volunteer, including their impact on learners and the organization.

Tiffany Schreiber exemplifies what it means to transform lives and communities through the doorway of literacy. Her commitment to Literacy Advance’s mission, programs, and students have positioned her as a standout volunteer since she began giving her time and talents to the agency in 2011. In the seven years she’s been involved, she’s spent more than 500 hours with classes and events, eager to assist wherever she can.

Her dedication has had a noticeable impact on adult learners. Her first paul and tiffanyefforts with Literacy Advance involved leading an Adult Basic Education student through one-on-one reading instruction at an offsite outreach location, ultimately helping the learner gain the skills and confidence to secure a new job and express greater confidence in his reading abilities. Of course, this milestone took time: Tiffany spent three hours each week for more than 30 weeks with the learner to help him achieve his goals.

And then, she came back for more! From 2013 – 2017, Tiffany tutored in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program, engaging with groups of students in back-to-back 12- and 16- week classes at all proficiency levels.

Regardless of the students’ abilities, the feedback was always the same: Tiffany is one of the best. Her classrooms are consistently student-centered and aim to reach all participants through a variety of learning styles. She engages with students to develop their language through music, reading, public speaking, and team games.

Staff recognize that she creates a safe space for students to work together, which makes them less afraid of making mistakes and more willing to try new things and new language. Her efforts have had powerful results, as her students consistently maintained high attendance, demonstrated progress between pre- and post- assessments, and report high rates of satisfaction with their experience.

While all of this growth was taking place in the classroom, Tiffany was actively involved in other agency events, including the Scrabble in the City fundraiser. Her upbeat, energetic personality and contagious smile were a perfect fit, and we weren’t the only ones to recognize it...

In 2017, Tiffany took a short break from her involvement with programs and events to plan an event of her own: a wedding to Michael, another Literacy Advance tutor! Despite all of the exciting changes Tiffany is experiencing, she has maintained a commitment to the agency and students by volunteering her time at the front desk, and training to lead New Student Registration sessions.

Read more about Tiffany in these fun Facebook posts!

August 2016: An engaging lesson about "home"

March 2017: Tiffany and Michael share their beautiful engagement photos with us!

Thank you for being amazing, Tiffany!


Phuc NguyenPhuc Nguyen

When Phuc researched places for his wife to take English classes and found Literacy Advance, he realized he could help alleviate the long waitlist by volunteering himself. Unfortunately, we were in the midst of hurricane recovery. We put new classes and new tutor trainings on hold while we worked to contact students and volunteers, and to re-establish existing classes.

Phuc and his wife were super patient. He was among the first volunteers to sign up for training once we had the 2018 training calendar, and attended the first session in 2018 to become an English tutor. Now he’s here four days a week – he tutors an evening class twice a week, and his wife attends class as a student, two days.

Phuc has a compassion and understanding of the common reasons adults come to Literacy Advance. He patiently coaxes them to express themselves in English, and looks for opportunities for each of them to practice outside of class.

Already, his students are seeing a difference. Their feedback shows they are eager to learn more vocabulary, find ways to practice speaking English outside of the classroom, and they actually like homework! One of Phuc’s students promises: “I will talk to my kid in English every day.” Another shares: “I feel happy for I understand more every day.”

What brought you to Literacy Advance?

In short, my wife brought me to Literacy Advance. After 15 years in corporate America, in 2014 I took a voluntary sabbatical leave. I traveled to Asia, met my now-wife in Vietnam, spent the last few years living in Vietnam. We recently came back to the states in April 2017. My wife, a foreigner, was eager to learn English. We researched, asked friends, and found out about Literacy Advance of Houston. We quickly signed up for her registration and she got oriented in August 2017. During my research for her, I became interested in volunteering as a tutor. I signed up for tutor orientation and training shortly after, however, the infamous Hurricane Harvey delayed my orientation and training until December 2017. I am now a newly minted, trained tutor teaching my first bi-weekly class which began in February 2018.

What do you most enjoy about volunteering?

I enjoy connecting with the students. Learning and understanding the different backgrounds, motivations of the students.

Most new volunteers are nervous before they start tutoring. How did you prepare for your first class?

I prepared by going over the given Literacy Advance's lesson plan for the first two classes. I try to inject as much humor as I can in class to lighten the atmosphere, to promote community and learning.

What would you say to other people thinking about volunteering?

I would say "jump right in". If you are already thinking about it, you already have the "heart" for it. Your "heart" will continue to guide you once you "jump right in".

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

I would want the ability to play any and all musical instruments. Just like language, music has the ability to communicate. Each particular musical instrument, when played, can communicate and elicit love, emotions, time, healing, pain, suffering, memories, nostalgia, elation, hope, fear, melancholy, happiness, strength.

Thank you, Phuc!


Deepika Mamnani

Deepika, center, with Reading Practice Group students.

Deepika has found new and wonderful ways to empower adult learners at Literacy Advance since 2011 – she has volunteered for more than 200 hours so far!

The class that currently brings out her superpowers is the Adult Basic Education Reading Practice Group (RPG). This is an optional, supplemental class that reading students can attend while they’re waiting for placement, or in addition to their regular classes. Deepika and a few other, specially trained tutors sign up for individual lessons. She travels a lot for her job and can’t fit a regular 12- or 16-week class in consistently, so the flexibility of RPG works well for her.

Deepika leads learners through a variety of exercises that give them extra practice, and shares a common reflection journal with the other RPG tutors. Students can come as their schedule allows, but most come regularly, and Deepika has developed a personal understanding of each learner’s goals and challenges. She’s great at identifying wins that tutors who are with students more regularly might not see, and she doesn’t pass up a chance to celebrate progress!

Her sincere admiration motivates students, and her attention helps us know when students might need additional support. Deepika always seems to exude kindness and compassion, but just ask her about RPG, and you will see her love-light shine!

What first brought you to Literacy Advance?

My mom works in literacy for underprivileged children in India. I was inspired by the meaning and joy volunteering bought to her life, and wanted to experience the same along with my current career.

I am an engineer by profession, and work in the space of Information Technology. I work for a consulting company and in my role, am required to travel across the US and globally as well, during the week. I was looking for tutoring options, that were flexible with my schedule and allowed me to pursue an opportunity to tutor on weekends.

I did a lot of research online, and the reason I selected Literacy Advance was that there were many ways to tutor either through teaching English to adults through a variety of programs such as English as a Second Language, Waiting Class, or special classes such as Computers. Moreover, these options were available on Saturdays which worked very well for me.

What do you most enjoy about volunteering?

The engagement with the students. I learn so much about life, cultures, teamwork, and empathy from them.

The students in the Reading Practice Group are particularly inspirational. They are extremely diligent and more importantly exceptionally sensitive to each other. This is a multi-level class and the students help each other not only with the language but in other areas as well. Many of them travel from faraway locations, and their dedication to the subject and towards each other has taught me so much.

They are a shining example of teamwork and looking out for each other. Professionals who work in a corporate environment and families could learn so much on teamwork and taking care of one another from them.

The other thing that I truly like, is that Literacy Advance has managed to create a safe environment where everyone can ask questions, discuss, and learn together. If your student understands the topic, you will get instant feedback. There is no pretense. The joy that you get, when your student masters a particularly difficult topic is priceless. It is this warmth, honesty, transparency and the bonding with the students that I enjoy the most.

Most volunteers are nervous before they start tutoring. How did you prepare for your first class?

My first class was a computer class in 2012. I was scheduled to tutor Microsoft Word and Excel over twelve lessons. I prepared for it in the following ways:

  • I was not nervous about the technical content as I understood the subject, but was very apprehensive about teaching adults. To overcome that I got some great literature from the library, on how adults learn and strategies to teach computers to adults.
  • I referred to the resources provided by Literacy Advance and created a twelve-week lesson plan.
  • I also got references to some Excel and Word applications, in the online resources section on the Literacy Advance Website. I downloaded these on my iPad as well. I found this to be very effective.

I was more nervous later, when I started teaching the Waiting Class and more recently the Reading Practice Group which I enjoy the most today : )

One thing that helped me overcome my nervousness for these two classes, was observing other volunteers and seeking guidance from them. Ahmed, my mentor for Waiting Class, and Mario, one of the first tutors of the Reading Practice Group, helped me prepare by providing guidance on materials and suggestions to run these classes.

Another thing that helped me, was the material for the theme of month and the online resources on the Literacy Advance website.

What would you say to other people who are thinking about volunteering?

It is the best gift that you can give yourself.

A student and tutor relationship is a win-win relationship, where the tutor is aiming to make the student successful, and the student is also trying to make his or her tutor successful. You don’t need to have the experience. You just need to have the desire to help and the support from the Literacy Advance team, will make you successful.

It is a magical experience. Try it. You will gain much more than you ever imagined.

Who is your favorite writer?

I read a variety of genres and have many favorites.

In the fiction genre, my favorites are Erich Sehgal, Rohinton Mistry and Jhumpa Lahiri.

In the non-fiction category, I love the works of Malcolm Gladwell, Robin Sharma, and Daniel Goleman.

When it comes to poetry, philosophy and spirituality, my favorites are Khalil Gibran, Maya Angelou, Eckhart Tolle and more recently Herman Hesse.

Thank you, Deepika!


Kourtnei Gartman

Kourtnei came to us as an intern in mid-August, 2017, and started just days before Hurricane Harvey. She connected with us through a fantastic program, the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance at the University of Houston. She expected to provide administrative support for classes and gain experience in public speaking, but no one could have predicted the work that needed to be done in the wake of the worst disaster in Houston’s history.

Kourtnei took community outreach to a new level by helping us to check on students and volunteers, connect them with critical services, and eventually re-establish adult literacy classes. She lent her endless sense of fun to community events, too, including representing us at the Energy Corridor Cigna Sunday Streets, and by doing a stellar job organizing our 9th annual Around the World celebration.

When her internship commitment was complete, we were delighted to learn that Kourtnei wanted to regularly volunteer! You can find her providing seamless front desk coverage and support for students and volunteers on Wednesday afternoons, when staff is often in planning meetings.

Why did you decide to volunteer after your internship?

Kourtnei at Sunday Streets in December 2017...
...and proving it was really her under that bunny head!

I wanted to do something outside of the classroom, and I really liked the culture. It’s so welcoming, and you can see people grow.

What’s your favorite part about volunteering at the front desk?

At the front desk, you can be part of the welcoming feeling and sense of community here. You get an idea of just how many people are helped, and the sustainability of it all.

What inspires you?

It’s amazing to see the progress students make; to hear when they are able to speak to their kids’ teachers, or to make progress with other life goals.

What would you say to other people who are considering volunteering?

It’s fulfilling! When you give your time away, you find purpose.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be, and why?

That’s easy! I would be an Empath. Mantis is a minor character in the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie. You should see them!

Thank you, Kourtnei!


Lori Corwin

Lori is the kind of person who sees the best in others, and looks for antidotes to unpleasantness in the world. She first became aware of the incredible difference Literacy Advance volunteers make through her husband, who volunteers on our Board of Directors. Although she has a teaching background and a lot of volunteering experience, Lori wasn’t quite sure what tutoring here was all about.

She contacted us in May 2017 and didn’t waste any time! Over the next few weeks, she came to a Story Time tour to learn about volunteering opportunities; completed English as a Second Language tutor training to become familiar with our philosophy, policies, and procedures; and she observed a Waiting Class to see the theory in action.

Lori began tutoring her first group of adults in two-hour lessons, two afternoons a week. She was smitten! She came out of each lesson with a smile on her face and beamed when she shared stories with the staff of how students supported each other and made progress. As her admiration for the students in her class grew, her encouragement and ability to recognize even small successes as progress kept them motivated, even through post-Harvey challenges.

Lori’s caring heart found a new source of inspiration, and so did we. We’re excited to welcome Lori back this year for another round of classes!

What brought you to Literacy Advance?

I have been volunteering in different capacities for the past few years. I had recently worked as a volunteer with the Houston Sports Authority for the Paralympic Games and then with the Super Bowl Host Committee. I was looking for a new path to embark upon when my husband told me about Literacy Advance.

He had been invited to join the Board and was so impressed by the mission and work being done. He knew that it was just what I had been looking for!

After completing the tutor training and sitting in on a summer class, I was hooked! The staff, tutors, and students make this such a worthwhile endeavor.

What do you most enjoy about volunteering?

I think that I am a born nurturer. I do love "caring for and encouraging the growth of someone or something." I adored my 2nd grade teacher and told myself that I would be just like her one day. Never wavering, I did receive my degree in education and taught for several years.

I am proud to have nurtured my own two wonderful children and volunteered with PTAs and booster clubs along the way. The constant in my various volunteer activities is that I enjoy helping, encouraging, and supporting others.

Lori teaches her class about Halloween, in the fall of 2017 -
and the best learning always includes hands-on experience!

What inspires you?

Seeing the good that everyday people do every day is my inspiration. We are often bombarded with the bad behavior of people in the world, yet we need not look too hard or too far to see the good that people do in big and small ways. From Harvey relief, layaway Santas, and simple pay-it-forward acts of kindness, the good we can do is inspiring.

What would you say to other people thinking about volunteering?

Volunteering gives you a chance to be a part of the kind of community and world in which you want to live. You can become an active participant in making the world a better place! Your actions, whether big or small, can have an impact on someone's life. We are all in this together and need to support each other.

What’s your favorite hobby?

I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and making sure they know how important they are to me. I also enjoy travelling and love reading about, researching, and planning the perfect vacation.

Lori and husband Chris on vacation in Italy

Thank you, Lori!


Jo Anne Stefano

Jo Anne has a long history of volunteerism throughout the community, actively supporting Meals on Wheels, Lions Club International, and the City of Fulshear. She’s a business owner, political activist, and the primary caregiver of her live-in mother.

She started volunteering at Literacy Advance in 2016, shortly after our office opened in Waller County, and quickly found multiple ways to support her neighbors as a tutor, substitute, donor, and by representing Literacy Advance at various community events throughout greater Houston.

Jo Anne first tutored a Beginner English class two evenings a week. She admits she was intimidated to get started, because she didn’t have formal teaching experience or speak another language. As owner of a children’s school, she spent her days with kids under 10; she knew that working with adults would require a shift in mind-set before every lesson.

But she was enamored of the students’ vulnerability and the trust they placed in her after the very first lesson. Their gratitude and commitment motivated her to connect with other volunteers and increase her effectiveness as a tutor. She used her lunch break to come to Tutor Enrichment Workshops at Wilcrest, travelled across three counties to participate in a Tutor Roundtable at Bay Area, and attended the Gulf Coast Literacy Symposium [registration for the 2018 symposium open now!].

Jo Anne’s creative by nature, and regularly exchanges ideas via our Tutor Support Group on Facebook. Her guiding principle is to let the students determine what’s important to include in lessons.

Her last class took a field trip to the local library so they could sign up for free books and computer access, and stopped to order fast food in English for the first time. Before her class finished in December, she volunteered to tutor yet another 12-week class at Waller as soon as the office opens for the Spring Semester in 2018.

We’re not sure how she does it, but we’re happy Jo Anne carves out time to volunteer at Literacy Advance, and we know the students in her next class will be, too!

What keeps you coming back?

Every day, there are so many demands on my time and attention. Tutoring fills me back up. It replenishes my soul.

What inspires you?

The best thing is when students make personal connections through English I helped them learn. In a recent Beginner class, we were talking about vowels and practicing that strange, American *a* sound. We used minimal pairs like *mad* and *sad*. We need to animate and act out sounds and words, so we practiced looking mad.

The next week, one student shared that he asked a co-worker: "You mad?" They proceeded to have a whole conversation around why. This was the first time he was able to have a conversation with this co-worker, he had the power to make a connection, and it started because the expressions helped him to remember the words!

Jo Anne's class celebrates Thanksgiving in November 2016

What's the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

In my first class, I tried to give my knowledge to the students. I directed the class and did a lot of lecturing. I’ve learned that I need to give students opportunities to practice their English. My job is just to oversee it.

Although I come prepared for the lesson and start with an agenda, class often goes off on tangents, and that’s okay! The students tell me what they need. They show me how to teach them.

What would you say to other people thinking about volunteering?

I thought I needed more linguistics. You don’t! You just need to have a willingness to save one starfish, that’s huge! You will make a difference in their lives, but even more, they will make a difference in yours.

What’s your favorite story?

Where the Wild Things Are. (If you haven’t yet, read it! It’s full of life lessons.)

Welcome back, Jo Anne, and thank you!

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