Although the dark gray days of February are upon us, a particularly dedicated volunteer with an illuminating spirit shines through. Join us in recognizing Susanne DeBerry Cole as Literacy Services' February Volunteer of the Month. Susanne’s inspiration to volunteer with us was sparked after she moved to downtown Milwaukee a few years ago. She would take daily walks past our building, and as she began to reflect on her 20 years of experience as a college professor, she thought about the importance of foundational literacy skills for students of all ages. She began volunteering with LSW in 2017, and has since become an essential and inspiring instructor at our North Division High School site.

Carol, our North Division Program Director, initially reached out to Susanne to pair her with a nontraditional Mount Mary University student who was struggling with her writing. At first Susanne found teaching English and grammar to be intimidating, however, Susanne and her student had a good time laughing and learning the rules of English grammar together. Carol soon noted that Susanne’s “genuine connection with and support for LSW students makes her so valuable in our program” and approached her about teaching the civics portion of the High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) class. Our competency-based HSED provides an alternative path to earn a high school diploma in the State of Wisconsin, whereby students create a portfolio of work that demonstrates the required competencies to transition into employment or post-secondary education.

With a PhD in history, it was a natural transition for Susanne and she has now taught the civics and history portion of the HSED for three semesters. She dives deeper than just preparing students for the state-given test. She has noted the lack of diversity in the test questions and augments the course material by featuring a “person of the day” segment in which her students can learn about and discuss fascinating but lesser known figures in history. Susanne’s students are with her four hours a day, four days a week, and she is wonderfully determined to make learning fun, interactive, and engaging.

Witnessing the change in her students and finding new ways to teach and learn has been a meaningful experience for her. One of her students who barely spoke when they first met completely blossomed by the end of the semester. The student came to tell her about a project she was doing on Susan B. Anthony, exuding such confidence and excitement, “a total transformation. It brings you to tears to see them do so much more with the little kernel you gave them.”

When not volunteering, Susanne loves to cook! She enjoys throwing dinner parties with complex menus and wine pairings. She has collected gourmet cooking magazines for over 40 years, some dating back to the 1960s. As a historian she loves the vintage ads, the letters written in, and the old recipes. Susanne also expressed her fondness of working with Carol, “She meets her students where they are at and helps them develop intellectually and grow as people.” Thank you, Susanne, for creating a positive learning environment, rekindling the fire in our students, and nurturing their desire to learn.