When I first thought of volunteering in West Virginia with the PV Volunteers, my attention fell on those individuals I would be helping. I imagined giving: giving my time, my compassion, my friendship, and my skills. While I did these things, however, I had not understood that this giving would help me to define my life, shape my career, and find my true self.

I was barely out of university and in my first “proper” job when I first volunteered. The team-building and organizational skills I developed made me feel more confident. I began to try new things, pushing myself to do more than I had ever done out of my comfort zone, from overcoming vertigo to repair a leaking roof to organizing a circus day at a Women and Children’s refuge. I had underestimated the impact that my rich and varied experiences would have, and also the opportunities that volunteering represented to me. I was reluctant to return to my corporate day job back at home, feeling it lacked fulfillment for me.

When I returned home to England, I began to consider the wider context of the work we did. I considered the impact of illiteracy on those West Virginians I had worked with. I had been surprised when they had asked me to read their mail and explain things to them. They shared with me how difficult it was for them to negotiate better benefits and medical care when they were unable to read, and how they often ignored bills and letters to avoid their reading difficulties. I questioned how this could come about in the world’s richest nation, and wondered what the story was in the UK.

I began to investigate literacy levels in England, and found there were many adults still working towards the literacy qualifications I had naively assumed all adults would hold. I decided to volunteer one evening a week teaching adults English as part of a community learning group. This is when I realized my vocation in life was to teach. I loved helping adults overcome the many barriers they faced with English, as it often went far beyond just the reading difficulty.

After another great time with the PVs the following year I returned home with my mind made up: I left my corporate job and enrolled on a teacher-training course. I have never looked back; it was the best decision I have ever made. I have now spent the past six years teaching math and English to adults, some with very severe difficulties. I have had a 42-year-old man crying on my shoulder because he could finally write his daughters a Christmas card, and students who have made it to university. This is all due to my time spent volunteering; the PV Program gave me the confidence and experiences to face new challenges in my own life and also a desire to continue to serve others here at home. I have used so many examples of West Virginia situations on application forms and interviews to progress my teaching career, and I am forever grateful.

Becki Simm

Becki and her partner James have the distinction of being our first international volunteers. They came at the invitation of their aunt who with her family has volunteered with the PVs for many years.