A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Location: Southeastern, Pennsylvania, United States

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Farewell to Learning Ally (Philadelphia)

I have put my voiceover talents to work when I volunteer at the Philadelphia studio of Learning Ally (formerly Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic: Learning Through Listening). I did this once a week for the last five years. There, other volunteers and I, mostly comprised of retirees in their 70s and 80s and a small paid staff, would record textbooks for people with learning disabilities. Most of our work concentrated on school textbooks, but anyone of any age could partake of our product.

This chapter of my volunteering life has now closed:  the Philadelphia studio will shut its doors this week after 24 years. The main office in Princeton NJ cited changing technologies and shrinking funding for its decision to close Philadelphia and six studios in other parts of the country. Learning Ally itself will continue to produce recorded books, but with a technology that will enable volunteers to record in the comfort of their own home. This same technology will render centrally located studio sites — with such pesky economic liabilities as a paid staff and office leasing charges - obsolete.

I use the word pesky sarcastically. I don’t consider the salaries paid to the Philadelphia staff a nuisance by any means. They are wonderful people who performed a great service to the learning disadvantaged. I feel badly that they will be unemployed — I was in their position at this time two years ago — and they don’t deserve to experience the loss of gainful employment. Given their talents, I don’t believe they will be out of work long. I will miss seeing them and interacting with the other volunteers every week.

This death has not gone without some display of rancor. There has been some Internet and Facebook grumbling from other volunteers about mismanagement at the main office and, indeed, the extravagant salaries paid to the executives of this non-profit appear to be obscene. This is to be expected; we volunteers need to work though our grief and vent frustration at the idea of losing the work we all loved to do.

So what exactly was this work? We’d take our assigned books into sound-proof booths which measured about 6 x 6 foot square, have our voice levels checked by one of the staff, and with a few mouse clicks, read out loud text into overhead microphones and record as much as we could in the course of our two hour blocks of volunteer time. Mistakes, mispronounced words, coughing and other extraneous noises would be cause to stop the proceedings, rewind back to a point in the text prior to the mistake, and re-record over the offending error. 

We would read all the words, those inside parenthesis and those without. We would also read the three dots… (ellipses) denoting an omission in a quote. We would even read “Quote” and “End of quote”.

Given that most of our work was with textbooks, there would be plenty of drawings, paintings, maps, and graphs interspersed throughout the books.  These would have to be read too, or (more accurately) described in the most efficient and succinct manner as possible. At the end of each description, we would see the letters “RTT” for Return to Text, and utter these words to instruct the reader to resume reading the words on the page. 

All this labor so that someone at the other end could listen as they read and understand a little better the world we live in. They listen to our voices and overcome their learning disabilities. Once they overcome their handicap, they stand a better chance of being productive members of society. Just knowing this is reward enough for many of us who volunteered our time over the years.

I will miss this work, although very few times did it feel like work. Granted there were too many times in the last two years when I would have to cancel at the last minute because my day job left me too mentally and/or physically exhausted to record. The staff would always graciously accept my cancellation, but I would make sure to call back and schedule another block of time for the following week. It never occurred to me at such times that there would come a week when I could not volunteer. Unfortunately, that week has arrived, and it came too soon.

I don’t know if I will jump back into volunteering any time soon. My volunteer opportunities have, for the moment, dried up. My once-a-month volunteer work at the Stoogeum ended last month when the owner, Gary Lassin, decided to stop the weekend open houses and open his doors for paying customers by appointment only. I miss that work too, but perhaps it’s time for me to take a break.

I don’t see myself banging down Learning Ally’s door anytime soon to apply for their recording at home opportunities. I wouldn’t mind doing the work, but at the same time it would remind me of the camaraderie that I am missing. There were not only the weekly volunteer sessions to enjoy, but there were perks, like the annual volunteer appreciation party, the Groundhog Day celebration, and of course the volunteer holiday party in December. These were all great times to meet and mingle with the other volunteers that many of us would never see in the course of our normal weekly two hour blocks, but they were also good times to eat and drink (non-alcoholic) beverages.
The holiday party in particular was a potluck affair.  One staff member would bring in stew and/or chili. Other volunteers would bring various delicacies ranging from dips to casseroles. I would contribute a loaf or two of Anne Marie’s beer bread. The beer bread was so popular with the other volunteers that I was obliged to bring in printed copies of the recipe.

I will miss all of this. The mood was a bit somber in the last few weeks since we all learned that the studio was closing. Yet there were signs of moving forward with hope. Someone had posted a movie still of Leonard Nimoy in his Spock character flashing his “Live long and prosper” hand gesture. Another sign had a quote attributed to Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

The Philadelphia Studio happened for 24 years…(ellipses) and it was wonderful!

Good luck to Dave, Colette, Tom, Jim and Kylee.  May God bless you and please keep in touch!

(Thank you for reading! Return to Text.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Todd, this is a wonderful, sincere and personal reflection of your time as a volunteer at RFBD. You captured it beautifully for so many volunteers across the country.

As a former staff person for RFBD/ LA, it is true about the high senior salaries, and also the overall dysfunction of the organization. The one bright spot in the organization has always been the volunteers.

Hope every volunteer knows this.

January 26, 2013 at 2:39 PM  
Anonymous Janey said...

Dear Todd,

I applaud your many years of volunteer service to this worthy cause! What a fine way to make use of your fine voice!

Other opportunites will come, my friend...

On behalf of all those listerners you've educated: THANK YOU!


January 26, 2013 at 4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I, too, was a volunteer at the Philadelphia studio and was grieved to see it closed. I'm still not over it. :(

Thank you for the lovely article. I summarizes my feelings as well toward the staff and the work we were doing.

- Debi P.

February 18, 2013 at 3:52 PM  
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February 26, 2013 at 9:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a Learning Ally volunteer in one of (2) Phoenix, AZ area studios. I believe they are both now closed. I have continued volunteer work, now with presentations and personal counseling on seniors health insurance issues (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, ACA, etc.) It's a rewarding effort, with lots of personal contact. Not like sitting at the computer for hours on end.

September 2, 2013 at 2:15 AM  

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