Kalamazoo octogenarian wins outstanding volunteer service award

By Lora Painter, WWMT

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Jay Parsons of Kalamazoo has seen a lot — and learned a lot — in his six-decade international career.

From Vietnam to South Africa and Thailand to Hawaii, Parsons’ curiosity and quest for knowledge continues to inform his teaching even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I told my students this year, you’re a godsend. You keep me active and involved and get me up in the morning,” Parsons said.

Parsons volunteers with the Kalamazoo Literacy Council as an English teacher to local immigrants, and also helps them prepare for citizenships tests.

“It doesn’t matter who they are, be them Mexican, Indian or Pakistani, or Japanese, I’ve been to most of those places and have a sense of the culture. So when we start, my objective in the teaching of English is getting people to use their language to converse. It doesn’t matter how good it is — just speak,” Parsons said.

It is because of that sensitivity, compassion and dedication that Parsons recently earned the Council’s 2020 Volunteer Service Award.

“We’re able to pick topics that cut across cultures and I’m able to add something from my experience in different cultures and they contribute through theirs, and they all say that’s really fun. It’s what they enjoy doing,” Parsons said.

Parsons moved to Kalamazoo three years ago; one of his children lives there. He stays connected with others through church and Friendship Village, where he now lives. Parsons was born in Long Island, New York, and moved to other parts of New England as a child, where he later attended Dartmouth University and earned several post-graduate degrees at other prestigious universities.

Parsons said his dad was a volunteer who worked in the Boys Scouts and Red Cross. He said “it’s in his genes” to want to give back to the community.

“Life has been good to me. So I’d like to give a bit back. And this is something I can do,” Parsons said.

In the 1960s, he was recruited to go to Burma to teach at a girls high school after college at Dartmouth. At the age of 21, he went to Vietnam to teach at a boys high school, where he learned how to teach through first-hand experience. His time in Vietnam as a young man sparked his love for different cultures and travel, which lead to many places including the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.

If you would like to volunteer with the Kalamazoo Literacy Council or are interesting in its programs, information can be found on the council’s website.