What We Learn by Teaching

How a Literacy Volunteer Discovered his True Calling

Don Neuwirth

For the past six years Don Neuwirth, a schoolyard planner by profession, frequently volunteered through the Jewish Coalition for Literacy (JCL) as a reading tutor at Buena Vista Horace Mann (BVHM), an underserved Spanish-immersion school in San Francisco's Mission District. Each week Don would corral his third, fourth and fifth grade students, splitting them up into small groups to focus his attention on them as they took turns reading with him. Gradually, he became more adept at drawing his students into the stories they read together, and eventually, he began to dig a little deeper to get a better picture of what their interests were. Dr. Seuss books were a particular favorite of his students who loved the way Don brought the characters to life with his enthusiasm for the stories’ imaginative rhythms and sounds

As a schoolyard planner, Don was accustomed to thinking about creating safe, nurturing environments for children to grow and play, but it was his work as a reading tutor that educated him on the immediate effect of what a caring, committed adult presence can have on a child. As he later reflected, “The most important thing we can do to have an impact in our communities is to have adults spend more time within the classrooms of our schools. That’s where all the change happens.”

Don Neuwirth’s life took an unexpected turn last year. After 50 years working as an urban planner, he pursued an emergency teaching certificate and started work as a substitute teacher in the Mission.

BVHM was having trouble filling an open teaching position because of a teacher shortage in the Bay Area, and it was obvious to the administration and teaching faculty that Don’s effective tutoring and mentoring clearly translated into a love for spending time with students. To Don’s surprise, after four years as an after-school tutor, the administration asked if he’d like to graduate from being a literacy volunteer to becoming a full-fledged teacher at the school. Because of the dedication and passion Don had demonstrated as a volunteer tutor, they thought he would be a natural fit for the position. “When they asked me if I was interested in the teaching position, I immediately responded that I would be happy to!”

However, before he could start working as a full-time classroom teacher, Don needed to obtain a teaching credential, which he eagerly pursued.  But after bureaucratic hurdles started piling up, he decided to get an emergency credential instead, becoming a substitute teacher at BVHM. “I was interested in helping out the students in any way I could, so taking this route was the quickest way to do that,” he said. Now Don teaches in both English and Spanish classrooms, working with students between kindergarten and eighth grade, in addition to continuing his volunteer tutoring after school with third through fifth grade students.

Don has expressed gratitude for the new skills and opportunities that working as a JCL tutor has brought into his life. “I never would have imagined myself getting a credential and becoming a substitute teacher, let alone teaching in Spanish! But I am incredibly happy that I was able to find my higher calling.” Committed to tikkun olam and helping to “repair the world,” Don continues to find ways to grow as an engaged community member, volunteer, teacher, and mentor for students. “It is impossible to put into words just how wonderful Don is and how important he is to our students,” said Melissa Van Gelder, the after-school coordinator at BVHM. “They look forward to working with him and it is routine to hear, ‘Is Don coming today?’” 

On behalf of JCL, thank you Don for being such a dedicated mentor and volunteer!

The Jewish Coalition for Literacy is funded in part by a grant from the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.  To become a volunteer tutor with JCL or to learn more about the program, sign up for an upcoming free training session at jclread.org

Categories: Volunteering, Grantees


August 04, 2016


Katherine Ladcani