15 November 2018

For all of us, fortunate to reach retirement age and beyond, there comes the question what to do with all the time on one’s hands and volunteering comes to mind. But where to offer my skills for what few they are?  Being passionate about spoken and written English, deplorably murdered by both press and television journalists and presenters nowadays, I needed to find a way to exert some influence, hopefully to make a difference and it seemed that the best way was to start at the beginning or nearly the beginning. Thus, I answered an advertisement for reader helpers to volunteer with national charity Beanstalk and, after a couple of training sessions, I found myself in a Primary school in North Acton with the prospect of revealing to three nine year olds the pleasure and benefit of reading and conversation.  

It was a baptism of fire! I had to learn very quickly how to encourage a nine year old to see the fun and value in reading, whose attitude was to be anywhere but in front of a book. Not content with climbing up the library windows – literally – he would be hiding behind the bookshelves and even at one stage under the table tying my left shoelaces to my right. Then, the name Harry Potter came up and that was the key.  

Another boy – and all my readers have been boys - recounted how he was going on holiday to Afghanistan where his uncle was with the Taliban! Then there was the one, who was kept awake by the noise the prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs made at night, that his mother couldn’t hear because she was deaf. Yes, at the age of nine he was a fluent signer! In two languages, I think!

There have been some remarkable surprises. I shall never forget reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea with one, who, without hesitation, read ‘phosphorescence’ without pausing.

Reading is only part of our sessions. Encouraging discussion, exploring mutual interests – what a time I have had with the World Cup! – all contribute to expanding their education. We have enjoyed word games and puzzles, even card games. 

Beyond the reading sessions, I have also presented an account of how my mother and I were evacuated from Singapore in 1942, and, this year, planning an exhibition of her botanical water colour paintings. 

But whether they have come from Somalia, Nigeria, Turkey, Greece, Brazil or West London, the improvement seems always to be satisfyingly noticeable even if it is only to hear them pronounce their t’s and g’s.  

Written by Martin Everard who volunteers as a Beanstalk reading helper in London

If Martin has inspired you to become a reading helper with Beanstalk, please fill out an online application form.