Yes, volunteering can change your life
Ruth Johnson Colvin at home in Syracuse, NY. PHOTO: TONY D. CURTIS
By Christie R. House
October 6, 2022 | ATLANTA
Ruth Johnson Colvin is still amazed at the way her life changed when, in 1960, she decided that someone needed to do something about the high rate of illiteracy in Syracuse, New York, where she lived. When that year’s census reports came out, she discovered that 11,055 people in her county could neither read nor write. She was certain some organization or municipal program must be working to correct this, but as her research deepened, she learned that no one was seriously addressing the problem.
Already in her 40s at that time, with no teaching background, Colvin invited the Syracuse Board of Education to her house for coffee. They had a night school program, they said, that taught adult reading to 50 people. Colvin decided to check out the program and discovered only 25 people in the class. She invited other groups to her house, hoping to find allies.
Finally, a representative of Church Women United attended one of Colvin’s coffee meetings. She said she would take the information to her next CWU meeting. Though Colvin had not heard of Church Women United, she was eager to meet them. “How many people are in your church,” she asked the representative, hoping to find some volunteers to help her develop a program.
“No, my dear, you misunderstand. I represent 80 member-churches involved in Church Women United in Syracuse.” At their meeting, members decided they would support this literacy effort with volunteers, but they wanted Mrs. Colvin to volunteer to lead the program. And so, her journey began.
Today, at age 105, Colvin has not lost her love for learning or her passion for literacy. In a recent interview, she reminisced about the many stops along her journey teaching literacy around the world. One of her first stops was Syracuse University, where she asked for help in designing the program. Professionals there reviewed her proposed curriculum and told her the phonics system she was using was 30 years behind the times.
That was one of her mistakes, Colvin noted, but she is proud to say that she learned from that mistake and others along the way, listening to people and working to build a better system. The nonprofit she founded was called Literacy Volunteers of America. In 2002, her agency merged with Laubach Literacy International to form ProLiteracy, which creates more educational opportunities for adult learners through an expanded national network and through new international initiatives.
“I’m so proud of the Methodists”
Ruth Colvin said she had been a Methodist most of her life. After Literacy Volunteers of America spread throughout the Northeast and into the Midwest, staff of the General Board of Global Ministries asked her in 1973 to share her methods with people in other countries, particularly in partnership with some of Global Ministries’ missionaries.
Ruth’s husband, Bob Colvin, retired at age 58 so that the couple could travel as mission volunteers, before there was a formal program, to teach leaders how to teach adult literacy. Their first trip was to Turkey, and they thought would be the extent of it, but then the mission board asked them to go to the next country, and the next. They spent three months each year and taught in 26 countries. Global Ministries paid their expenses, but the Colvins volunteered their time and received no salary.
In fact, Literacy Volunteers of America depended on thousands of volunteers to reach out to people in their local communities who needed help with adult literacy. “I had no money,” Colvin confessed. “I didn’t have an office. My storage was down in my basement. I used a broken refrigerator as my book shelf.”
As the years passed, the Colvins found other sponsors and allies and eventually visited 62 countries in all. Bob Colvin passed away at age 99, after 73 years of marriage with Ruth. It was a difficult time for Ruth, losing the love of her life, but she still had work to do and more to learn.
“I’ve been around the world and worked with people of practically every religion,” Colvin said. “I look for the similarities and respect all of them. But the Methodists, I’ll tell you, are a favorite of mine.”
“I didn’t want to write the book”
In her lifetime, Ruth Colvin has written 15 books. Most of them are manuals about teaching literacy, but a few are autobiographies of her journeys.
Her latest book was written two years ago as her memoir, published by ProLiteracy’s publication office, New Readers Press.
“When they wanted me to write a memoir, I said, ‘Who wants to read about an old lady?’ And they said, ‘we get all sorts of calls and emails – What’s your secret to longevity? How could you start a national and international literacy organization when you weren’t even a teacher? And how could you go to so many countries teaching literacy?’ People wanted to know that. So, I agreed to write it. If people can learn from my mistakes, that’s worth doing.”
In addition to her 15 books, Colvin gained recognition along the way. She is the recipient of nine honorary degrees, one from Syracuse University being her first. She was also honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given to her by George W. Bush in 2006 and the President’s Volunteer Action Award, given by President Reagan in 1987. In 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
But her passion about literacy is what drives her. For more on her memoir, “My Travels Through Life, Love and Literacy: A Journey Over 100 Years in the Making,” visit New Readers Press, My Travels through Life, Love, and Literacy (Soft Cover).
Christie R. House is a consultant writer and editor with Global Ministries and UMCOR.
Mission Volunteers serve for two months and longer in their Global Ministries assignments. Volunteers build churches, assist in community health programs, advocate for social justice, build leadership skills and help after a disaster. Connect with Mission Volunteers through Global Ministries. Application process, training and open volunteer opportunities are on the site. The next training event is Nov. 30-Dec.3, 2022.