May. 29 2023
Volunteering takes many forms and time commitments, and we value everyone who takes time to share their skills, time, friendship, and knowledge with others. Many volunteers stay in touch as Literacy Ambassadors after their regular volunteer role has come to an end. These folks share their stories and experiences to encourage others to get involved in this vital cause. Ornela Kljakic, PhD, is such a person.
Are you a former volunteer and would like to share your story? Get in touch today
I have been involved with United for Literacy for over 10 years now. I have held numerous roles ranging from Volunteer to Program Leader to London Intern to Literacy Ambassador. Through these roles, I have had so many amazing moments and experiences, and this organization has truly impacted me both professionally and personally. My career trajectory is very different now versus when I started volunteering in 2012.
I discovered United for Literacy (at the time, it was Frontier College) during my second year as an undergraduate student in science at Western University. I was a very shy person who was just looking for a way to share my passion for learning and education with the London community
. The first program I volunteered at was a Reading Circle, and I still remember one of the first students I worked with. Our team helped a young girl prepare to read a book in front of her class. She came to the program each week and practiced reading out loud to help settle her nerves and learn how to pronounce difficult words. This may not seem like a huge contribution, but you could see the learner slowly build confidence in her reading and communication skills. This was when I started to appreciate that as a volunteer we could make an actual impact in the community, even if it seems small.
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After a term at the Reading Circle, I started volunteering for a program focused on helping young adults achieve their GED (OSSD equivalency). Each week at this program was exciting as I never knew what topic I would be teaching or who I would be helping. I vividly remember working with a learner on fractions and long division and him telling me, “I plan to go to college to become a video game designer and you are slowly helping me get there.”
This experience made me realize that I love teaching, working with different people, and figuring out the best way to help others succeed and achieve their dreams. This learner did end up achieving his GED and now is in college pursuing his goals. I enjoyed my time at this GED-program so much that I volunteered there for seven years.
One of my last experiences as a full-time volunteer with United for Literacy was actually one of my most meaningful and brought my experiences full circle. I was paired with an 8-year old learner whose goal was to improve his reading skills. He was a fantastic student; I loved reading Robert Munsch books with him every week and having him teach me all about soccer and Marvel comics.
I remember when he sounded out “professor” on the first try and when he spent a whole session perfectly spelling out large numbers like trillion, gazillion, and quadrillion. The joy and excitement on his face during the reading and spelling of each word was indescribable. I felt so much pride when he told his mother that he could spell large numbers. I worked with him for one year and during that year he went from reading one short story in a one-hour tutoring session to three stories in a session. It was such a rewarding experience and reminded me that with the help of interested volunteers, learners can really improve their skills.
During all these years I was still pursuing science/academia, and by 2017, I was in a PhD program at Western. At this time I was also acting as the London Intern (a position I held for 3 years), helping oversee all literacy programming in the community. This leadership experience was often a highlight of my week, and it solidified that I loved community outreach
. I began to think that this could be a full-time career and that United for Literacy had fully prepared me for this role. United for Literacy allowed me to develop and expand my communication, organizational, and teaching skills. I learned a great deal about team building, marketing, social media, outreach, and how to create and sustain unique relationships, partnerships, and networks. I even learned to be confident in myself and I shed a lot of the social anxiety I had throughout my education. I grew both professionally and personally over my 10 years with the organization (I also made lifelong friendships!). I now work as a full-time youth outreach coordinator for the University Health Network in Toronto, and I am positive that I wouldn’t be here without United for Literacy.
If you’d like to make a difference in your community, become a United for Literacy volunteer