Sheila McLaughlin’s career outlook changed, week by week, after she began tutoring a Chinese immigrant nearly a decade ago.
At least once a week for nearly a year, McLaughlin found a quiet corner to help Winnie Liu study for a U.S. citizenship test. Liu’s soft-spoken demeanor belied strong ambition: She had been a doctor at home but moved to America for better opportunities.
“People don’t realize what a complicated process it is to get citizenship,” said McLaughlin, a petite 70-year-old with downy, white hair and a dry sense of humor. “It’s not enough to know the facts.”
And so it was with Liu.
Liu, who lived a few blocks from McLaughlin in Ventnor, knew every question McLaughlin rattled through, but stumbled over the pronunciations. It wasn’t that Liu spoke English poorly, but that she felt insecure in the language skills she had already acquired. That insecurity tripped her up even more.
“She knew every single answer, many of which I didn’t know,” McLaughlin said. “I knew she’d be fine, but building confidence is a big part of that.”
McLaughlin was excited to see her student succeed, and that enthusiasm, Liu said, made both more comfortable with the process.
“She gave me the book,” said Liu, now 40 and a casino dealer. “I read it to her, she read it to me, explained it to me and gave me a chance to talk.”
The experience prompted McLaughlin to embrace teaching as a new vocation. A few years after volunteering for the Literacy Volunteers Association Cape-Atlantic, she applied and was selected to be the nonprofit’s executive director.
McLaughlin will retire this month after more than seven years leading the organization, which provides free tutoring to individuals speaking English as their second language.
At the time, McLaughlin had little experience in the field. An avid reader, she had aspired to be a writer, but the dream had escaped her grasp. After spending a dozen years working for casinos, she entered the nonprofit sector. Her previous job was as financial director for the Girl Scouts of the South Jersey Pines.
“I thought, ‘Gee, I know English, I can do that,’” she said. “A lot of our volunteers think the same thing — this is real one-on-one contact and it’s something the average person can do.”
For the past six years, McLaughlin has run a tight ship.
Including herself, the nonprofit has two full-time and two part-time employees overseeing the work of 104 volunteer tutors who instruct between 260 and 300 students each year.
“We all wear several hats,” she said.
McLaughlin said she runs the nonprofit “like a business,” keeping a tight rein on the budget while finding creative partnerships. For instance, LVACA has partnered with several other nonprofits and schools to promote “health literacy,” ensuring ESL students understand medical professionals and can make informed decisions about their health.
Additionally, McLaughlin is often involved in making the day-to-day operations run smoothly.
Funding is the biggest challenge for the group, which operates out of a small, green Cape Cod house off Pleasantville’s Main Street. With money scarce, particularly during the recession, McLaughlin said she has had to work hard for every donation and grant.
“Nobody is overpaid, and nobody is overstaffed,” she said.
Indeed, the Cape-Atlantic chapter is the only LVA affiliate in New Jersey with its own building.
According to LVACA’s 2012 IRS 990 tax form, the most recent available, the nonprofit group brought in $179,000 in revenue, compared with $183,000 in expenses. McLaughlin’s salary last year was less than $52,000.
Clark Doran, LVACA’s recently retired board president, said McLaughlin performed admirably under pressure, marshalling the nonprofit’s scant resources.
“She has a good sense of people and was successful at keeping people motivated and keeping morale up, which isn’t easy when budgets are tight and raises aren’t forthcoming,” said Doran, 66, of Galloway Township.
A lot of that has to do with McLaughlin’s poise and good humor. She’s articulate and passionate about her work, but possesses a sense of humor about herself.
“That got her through some of the rough times,” he said.
A self-described “gym rat” and a certified personal trainer, McLaughlin said she plans to spend more time in the gym, more time reading in her extensive home library and more time traveling after she retires.
McLaughlin deflects questions about her legacy. Her work isn’t over, she said, as she plans to assist in the transition with whomever the board chooses as her successor.
“We’re stable and we’re growing with a good future and a lot of good people,” she said.
More than anything, McLaughlin said, she hopes people understand the hard work most immigrants put forth to succeed. They are no different than the immigrants who arrived here centuries ago.
“Some just want to be able to read to their children and become involved in their school activities,” she said. “Some want better jobs or to take their GED, and some are interested in becoming citizens.”
While most students leave the nonprofit within a year, many maintain friendships with their tutors, including McLaughlin’s first student. The pair still meet for lunch, sharing a few laughs and talking about their respective children.
“We’ve been friends a long time,” Liu said. “After I passed (the citizenship test), we still met each other.”
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