Seeds of Hope: Empowering Individuals

Marvin Smith has spent hundreds of hours working with the Literacy Volunteers of Union County, a non-profit dedicated to helping adults improve their reading, writing, and speaking skills.

Marvin Smith
Marvin Smith has spent hundreds of hours working with the Literacy Volunteers of Union County, focusing on preparing students for the GED.
Photo by John Emerson

After 28 years as a probation officer in Union County, Marvin Smith decided, at 53, it was time to retire and try something new. “I was thinking I’d probably get another job,” he says, “but I never actually started looking.” One day he happened to see a newspaper ad offering to train new tutors for Literacy Volunteers of Union County.

More than 200 volunteers strong, the nonprofit is dedicated to helping adults improve their reading, speaking and writing skills. “Literacy changes and saves lives,” development director Arlene Klemow wrote in her letter nominating Smith. “It is empowering—enabling individuals to become independent, get better jobs, advocate for their children, and become active, involved members of their communities.”

Since completing the training in 2000, Smith has spent hundreds of hours working one-on-one and with small groups in public libraries and community centers, helping students overcome stumbling blocks to a better future. “Education should be a lifelong pursuit,” he says. “You’ve got to know how to read to accomplish that.”

For the past three years, Smith has focused on preparing students for the GED, or General Equivalency Diploma, an alternative to a high school degree. The test is tough; Smith says only one or two students out of a group of 10 usually pass after the 15-week course, but when they do, it’s a thrill. “A lot of the recognition should go to these students,” he says. “They have the dedication and perseverance.”

Early in his tenure with Literacy Volunteers, Smith offered to help in the administrative office, making copies and even moving furniture. “He’s been our angel ever since,” says Literacy Volunteers executive director Elizabeth Gloeggler. “I always say that nothing would happen around here without Marvin.” Smith also trains new tutors.

An Ohio native, Smith moved with his family to Scotch Plains when he was 12 and his father got a job in Manhattan. After Smith married, he and his wife, Louise Russell, moved to Westfield. “New Jersey’s a good place,” he says. “You got a little bit of everything here.” One thing it doesn’t have is his two daughters, so he ventures to Brooklyn to visit them and spend a little time with his grandson. He plays tennis, and since Russell passed away four years ago, Smith has maintained her garden.

Now 65, he has no plans to retire for a second time. “I’m staying put,” he says.

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