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Paul Gessner, Union County College Adjunct and Literacy Volunteer

Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Though Paul Gessner is searching for full-time employment, the transit analyst dedicates several hours per week to helping others.

For nearly three years, the Westfield resident and his wife have been donating their time and talent to Literacy Volunteers of Union County. Headquartered at the Plainfield Library, the non-profit organization is committed to increasing the literacy of adults and their families within the community.

In early 2008, the couple, who has lived in town for 24 years, saw an advertisement in a newspaper asking for volunteers. After attending training sessions in Cranford, the two began helping others improve their ability to read, write and speak English.

"There was an overwhelming need," Gessner said. "At the time, there was a backlog of more than 200 people who needed ESL (English as a Second Language) help."

Because his strengths lie in the field of mathematics, Gessner quickly became a math instructor to those studying for their GED exam.

Gessner said the number of hours he volunteers varies depending on the number of students he may have at a given time, but usually averages between two and three hours per week.

Half of the students he tutors come from outside the United States, Gessner said, which can make his job more challenging.

"Besides learning the language, many problems are word problems, 80 percent are multiple choice and 20 percent are fill in the grid. So, they have to understand English before they can understand the math," Gessner said. "A lot of times they'll tell me they understand the math but what's holding them back is the reading and writing."  

The classroom is a natural fit for Gessner who has been working as a part-time math professor at Union County College as well as a tutoring supervisor at the Academic Learning Center provided by UCC.

While his volunteering mainly has followed the classroom format, Gessner explained how Literacy Volunteers can help those learning the language in numerous ways.

The teacher said his wife not only works one-on-one with students to help them in the areas of reading comprehension and writing, but also assists them in learning the communication skills necessary for daily living.

"Some people want to know how to communicate if they have to take their children to a doctor and they only speak Spanish and the doctor speaks English," he said. "Going to a supermarket, there may be things you're looking for and you don't know where to find them and it may be hard to explain."

The age range for students is "all over the place," said Gessner, who noted that he has formed several friendships in the time he has spent tutoring.

The volunteer said as much as he enjoys the experience, it is most rewarding when he learns that his students have been successful.

"When somebody comes to class and I hear that they've passed, then I think, 'ok, well it must've worked,'" he said. "Or, when somebody says, 'I get it now.' A lot of times I'll hear, 'I passed everything but math,' then I try to help them again."

"He's a wonderful, dedicate volunteer," said Arlene Klemo, Development Director for Literacy Volunteers of Union County.

The Gessners have passed on their spirit of giving. The couple's 26-year-old daughter volunteers for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.  

Gessner said he also helps out at the NJ Community Foodbank several times per year. Being able to donate his time has helped to keep his skills sharp and his spirits up as he looks for full-time employment. For those who are also seeking employment, Gessner suggests attending the weekly Searching for Work meetings held at the Presbyterian Church in Westfield.

Published on 12/20/2011 by the Westfield Patch
Photo courtesy of the Westfield Patch
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