Doing What You Love to Make a Difference – Meet Volunteer Turned Employee Mary Jolly

Sometimes, one small choice or event can spring into a new opportunity when you least expect it. That is exactly what happened to Mary Jolly, a lifetime educator and mentor from Northeast Ohio.

Mary decided that she wanted to give back to her community and turned to Vantage Aging’s AmeriCorps Seniors program. AmeriCorps Seniors connects older Americans to community needs based on their interests, talents, and time.

After connecting with Vantage, Mary was introduced to Project Learn of Summit County. Project Learn provides free literacy, GED, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), college transition, and career preparation classes. Mary volunteered at Project Learn helping students pass their GED or with ESL. Then, she was hired at Project Learn with a permanent position.

Volunteering her time and talents

Through volunteering, Mary ended up in breakout rooms with one student at a time. One of these students, who was long-term, passed her GED and Mary loved that feeling. She started working with teachers in multiple fields to gain more confidence in those subject areas and studied crash courses (math, in particular).

Mary then met with Project Learn’s Volunteer Coordinator, Melissa Paul, which led to more in-depth discussions about Mary’s background and her ideas to grow at Project Learn. She wanted to help with study strategies and how to utilize specific learning tools for students.

Turning an interest into a career

After talking with Melissa, Mary decided to apply for a position at Project Learn. She is now an HSE (High School Equivalency) Instructor.

Mary succeeded in her interviews by self-teaching the information she received in the GED booklets while volunteering. Because she was familiar with the materials, she felt confident teaching this learning group.

Mary is now teaching Special Topics at Project Learn, including Mind over Matter, Tackling the Test, and What is Critical Thinking, working with students virtually through Zoom.

Mary has been an educator for 40 years as an elementary school teacher, teaching coach, Wayne College instructor, and literary coach. Her passion for teaching continued as she volunteered her time to help teach at Project Learn.

Why Mary’s work matters

To Mary, the most meaningful aspect of volunteering was developing relationships and being alongside the students to help them to see each other as equals. If students messed up on a problem, it was okay, because sometimes Mary didn’t know the answer either, and they worked through things together. Mary chose to do this work because it fulfilled her and she thoroughly enjoys using her special gifts and talents to help others find theirs.

Mary also had the opportunity to meet people of backgrounds outside of her lived experiences through her role at Project Learn. This has helped her to understand struggles that she may have never had to deal with, and she is grateful for this experience.

To Mary, the most important work she does for the community through Project Learn is affirming her students. She wants all students to know that mistakes are expected, respected, invested, and then corrected.

Mary believes that helping students know their value and walking side-by-side with them to help their world and the world around us improve is one of the most important parts of her role.

Deciding to join AmeriCorps Seniors

One reason Mary joined AmeriCorps Seniors was that she wanted to do something to make a difference. She didn’t feel comfortable just sitting at home during the pandemic and wanted an opportunity to get involved without putting herself at risk. There were so many opportunities she was interested in, but she needed something she could do from home.

When Mary was researching places to volunteer, VANTAGE contacted her and found some options that she found interesting. She’d received a personal phone call from Tessa, a Manager of RSVP, and spent time talking to see what Mary was interested in.

Mary said that this experience helped her realize that “I’m not done yet. I’m not finished yet. Part of why we are on earth is to help others and I can’t do that if I’m not involved in something.”

Mary wanted to move into a permanent role at Project Learn because she felt such a connection and sincerely loves working with adult learners.

Mary said, “These students had their learning interrupted or didn’t have the opportunities to learn some pertinent skills. So, how do we re-introduce these strategies to the students? Because we want to empower them to make their learning choices. We want them to be able to see what they need, embrace it, and work through it.”

Contributing to community

Mary believes that we have to teach our community how to use skills to be successful, and she realized that this opportunity at Project Learn was about fulfilling a mission.

Mary wants potential volunteers to know that through the AmeriCorps Seniors program, she has learned a lot of technical skills to be successful with this position, and she is thriving.

“I am so blessed to be part of Project Learn because it was such a great connection for me. It is a phenomenal fit, and everyone can find a place that is their niche. VANTAGE was the first to respond to me with a volunteer opportunity, and look at all of the positive that has come from it.”


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