Dream Job

12/01/2022 12:52 AM By Lisa Anderson
Focus on Literacy
Mary Beth Mutarelli
Mary Beth Mutarelli
Story by Jodi Anderson • Photos by Joshua Jacobs

Dream Job

Volunteer Teaches More Than English

Mary Beth Mutarelli’s life has always revolved around helping people. “I’m hooked on helping people move toward their goals.” Mary Beth finished her graduate studies in Social Work and moved to Ocala with her husband Rich in 1984. Except for a short stint in Phoenix, Arizona, they have been here ever since. “We came back to Ocala because that felt like home.”

The newly minted social worker started her career with the Marion County Schools, doing home visits and acting as communication liaison between families and the five schools to which she was assigned. “That was a really good experience for me to firsthand understand some of the challenges people face,” she recalls. Over 15 years, she saw all the obstacles underprivileged families had to overcome, “basic things you would take for granted,” like no electricity or water, a lack of transportation and medical care, simply trying to get enough money to go to the laundromat. “You start where they are,” Mary Beth says. “I think that was the biggest lesson that I learned from social work school. You try to put yourself in their situation.”

A New Direction

As her parents’ health declined, Mary Beth took a step back from her career to care for them for a couple of years. She began to volunteer in her children’s classrooms. The principal of Osceola Middle School approached her during a fundraising car wash. “She said, ‘I’m looking for someone just like you,’” Mary Beth remembers. “I wasn’t thinking about going school-based at that point.”

A couple of years later, she had six new certifications and was working in a self-contained classroom with developmentally challenged students. “I absolutely loved being school-based,” Mary Beth enthuses. “I enjoyed the parents I had. They were on the team with me to do whatever we could to help their children. It was a fabulous job for me.” Her goal was to help her students become as self-sufficient as possible. Their classroom had a kitchen and a washing machine and dryer. They went on field trips to the grocery store. And they would visit classes like art, physical education, and band. “We were very included in the school.”

Mary Beth retired in 2012. Four years later, she discovered she had cancer. “I’ve always been taught to look around and see what others were doing. I would go to the waiting rooms and say, ‘Oh, that person is really going through it.’” Mary Beth had to learn to recognize that her pain was just as valid. “I have a lot of spiritual faith, so I believe I have been steered. I have been guided throughout my life.” Thankfully, she considers herself in recovery.

In 2017, Rich had the chance at his dream job in Phoenix as a hospital administrator overseeing clinics in needy communities. During that time, Mary Beth volunteered with a women’s service club. “One of the things we were doing was tutoring at a Title I school. It was a school where the children had a lot of the problems [similar to the families] I had visited.” When Rich began having health issues, the couple returned to Ocala.

Back in the Classroom

Mary Beth started looking around for similar volunteer experiences, perhaps working with children again. Her son’s wife was involved with Marion County Literacy Council through the Junior League of Ocala and suggested she might tutor there. Mary Beth now teaches 1-1/2 hour basic English classes twice a week. “I have been there a little over a year now—love it. LOVE it, like I can’t even tell you. It’s amazing,” she gushes.

Most of her students are Spanish-speaking, but she has a smattering of other languages: Portuguese, Mandarin, Russian, Ukrainian. She says all the adults have different goals, but they have commonalities. “Their shared goal is to master life, where they need to speak English, where they need to understand English,” explains Mary Beth. “The emphasis is not so much on reading English, but they are acquiring it.”

Mary Beth and her students have become like family. She compares it to her experience teaching her special ed students. “The environment of the classroom is so important...We are kind to each other.” She admires her students’ courage and motivation to come to class, but she feels they give her more than she gives them. “It’s like a dream job. I come out of there feeling very fulfilled and happy. I feel like I made somebody’s life just a little bit better today, and that makes me feel better about myself,” she smiles. “They thank me. They call me Teacher. ‘We love you, Teacher.’ And who wouldn’t love that?”

In her spare time, Mary Beth is a self-described “crazy avid reader.” She jokes to her attorney son that she has graduated from the John Grisham Law School, as her favorite genre is legal thrillers. She is excited to get to know her brand new granddaughter. And she does pilates to stay healthy. “It’s all about the age I’m at, right now; it’s stimulation, making sure that I’m keeping my brain active. That’s important!” But her heart will forever be with volunteering: “It’s the most feel-good experience you can imagine.”
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