Friday, July 15, 2011

When reseach becomes more than research

One of the bonuses of writing for a living is a flexible schedule. We writers can be working at midnight and swim or bike at 3 o'clock if we're so inclined. It's a great life, especially if it pays in dollars.

But even if the income is, shall we say, unpredictable, the writing life also can pay in other ways: the freedom to be part of the neighborhood. A couple years ago I volunteered to read to kids waiting to see their doctor at HCMC (Hennepin County Medical Center) in downtown Minneapolis. On Thursday mornings I walked about 10 minutes, past the Mall of America Metrodome, to the center, grabbed a bag of books, and sat in the lobby reading to kids, or their siblings. Most of the kids loved hearing about Clifford's latest escapades, or searching for Waldo. I suspect their parents liked the respite. Then, as kids left their appointment they were allowed to choose a book to take home. The idea was to encourage literacy, and in a tiny way, I think it worked. But last spring I dropped the gig because it didn't give me a chance to get to know any of the kids. It felt like shift work. Plus, I was worried I'd get caught up in the latest measles epidemic.

Then, one day, I walked into the Somali Resource Center in Riverside Plaza (known to the University of Minnesota students who live nearby as Crack Towers)  and volunteered  as an aide to an English as a second language class one morning a week. It has turned into exactly the activity I wanted. I get to see the same people every week. Habiba. Dube. Hussein. Hua. I work with them in small groups as they struggle to learn English, which I've come to realize makes no sense. Most of the students are well over 60, and many never learned to read in Somali. Yet they keep working. I take two or three aside and help them read sentences such as "The shower is leaking. Call the manager."

I look forward to each Wednesday morning class for the chance to be with people, for the stimulation, for the change of scenery from my computer.   I'm also learning about customs, mannerisms, habits of Somali women, a community where I plan to set my next book in the Skeeter Hughes mystery series.

Have you ever turned a work or volunteer opportunity into a mystery?


  1. Nice post, Judith. I volunteered at Planned Parenthood as part of my research for The Sex Club. I still get called in to work the phones sometimes. As people who work at home, it's great to network in the community when we can.

  2. I remember volunteering at the Adult Learning Source here in Denver. They had an ESOL program (English for Speakers of Other Languages) but I helped to teach adults who had grown up in this country how to read. It was quite an eye opener for me. No story out of that experience, but I think it's a great idea to find a way to get involved in our communities.

    Kudos to you and I can't wait to read it!


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