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Jim Sivells came to Williamsburg to enjoy a quiet, leisurely retirement with his wife after 17 years as a high school social studies teacher in Prince William County.
Eight years later, he has accumulated more than 4,000 volunteer hours with Literacy for Life and has personally played a role in about 45 students attaining U.S. citizenship.
When he arrived in Williamsburg, Sivells quickly found himself drawn to Literacy for Life, a local organization that provides tutors and classes to people in the Williamsburg area who struggle with reading and writing.
His interest in this type of cause began when he served in the U.S. Army as a military intelligence officer.
While he was stationed in Vietnam between 1965 and 1966, and again from 1969 and 1970, he had his first teaching experience leading English classes for the Vietnamese locals in the evenings.
His tutoring experience kept him invested in a military career because it is what “gave him a sense of purpose,” he said. He retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel, at which time he decided to continue to pursue that passion and become a teacher full time.
When it came time to exit the workforce, Sivells and his wife chose Williamsburg, which they had “fallen in love with” when they honeymooned in the area as newlyweds. He had peaceful and relaxing retirement in mind when he first moved to town, but he could not shake his desire to continue to teach and contribute something positive to his community.
He was also surprised to discover the significant illiteracy problem in the Historic Triangle. Sivells said he has found the Williamsburg area is often perceived as affluent and well-educated, but there are significant pockets of the community tremendously disadvantaged and marginalized because of their struggles with illiteracy.
The National Center for Education Statistics most recent survey in 2003 shows 8 percent of the City of Williamsburg population, 7 percent of James City County and 6 percent of York County are lacking in basic literacy skills.
“People have no idea of the makeup of this community,” Sivells said.
When he recognized this problem and felt called to take action, Sivell’s first step was to get involved with Child Development Resources, a separate but related organization through which he was first introduced to Literacy for Life.
CDR specifically targets young parents with children who are at risk because of language barriers or developmental disabilities. That program provides resources for both children and parents, and is often a gateway for the latter to get more interested in improving their own literacy in order to benefit their children.
Though Literacy for Life does not keep track of the percentage of its learners who are not yet U.S. citizens, through the program Sivells has had extensive exposure to working with learners who are trying to obtain citizenship.
“They are human beings, and if they are contributing here they are just as worthy as anyone else,” Sivells said.
The process that leads to citizenship is a lengthy one, as he soon discovered. Many of his students are here on immigration visas, and they must obtain a permanent residence card – which usually happens after about five years of living in the U.S. – before they can seek citizenship.
Sivells prepares his students seeking citizenship for every step of this process as best he can. He tutors them on how to answer the law, history, customs and tradition questions, and walks them through what immigration officers will be looking for in their applications. If and when his students make it through all these steps and are granted citizenship, he sometimes accompanies them to their swearing in ceremonies.
Citizenship is not the goal for every student he tutors, but Sivells says those victories are some of the most meaningful to him. The first student he ever helped attain citizenship was a woman from Mexico who came to him not speaking a word of English. Seeing those kinds of results is “incredibly rewarding” for him as a tutor.
“Tutoring in a one-on-one situation, you cannot help becoming really involved in their lives because that’s what the conversations are based on,” he said.
Because he has had so much experience with helping learners attain citizenship at this point, Sivells has become something of a “tutor to the tutors,” as he has increasingly been sought out by other tutors working for Literacy for Life for his advice on how to navigate the citizenship process with their own students.
“Fortunately we have tremendous resources at Literacy for Life, which really makes a difference with what the tutors can accomplish,” Sivells said.
He remembers a time when they did not have the state-of-the-art workspace – complete with classrooms, a computer lab and shelves upon shelves of reading materials – they currently enjoy. When Sivells came to Literacy for Life they were based in a basement in the old William and Mary School of Education building.
“Going from that to what we have now, it’s like going from the 19th to the 21st century. I think the progress this organization has made over the last five years is absolutely amazing.”
He hopes that as Literacy for Life’s presence continues to grow in the community, more people in situations like his own will become inspired to get involved. “Most of us who are here in the retired community have been given a lot, and we should feel an obligation to give back,” he said.
As for himself, he plans to keep giving everything he can to Literacy for Life as long as he continues to get the deep sense of satisfaction that has driven him to volunteer for more than 1,500 hours over the past eight years.
“Outside of family, it’s given me my purpose in life. It has kept me within my mind, it’s kept me young, it’s been so rewarding to me all the way around.”
This article has corrected to show Jim Sivells has amassed more than 4,000 volunteer hours. Incorrect information was provided.