Article originally appeared in The Jewish Journal on January 2, 2014.
Armin Szatmary takes his membership in the “People of the Book” very seriously.
So seriously, in fact, that once per week, for 15 years, the 73-year-old retired salesman has set aside time to help illiterate kids in Los Angeles’ public schools learn to read.
Sitting in the living room of his two-story West Hollywood apartment with his wife, Marilyn, by his side, Szatmary tried to add up how many hours he spends each week helping improve the odds for people dealt a tough hand.
Keeping count was tough, but he guessed that in the course of each week he spends more than 20 hours between tutoring at The Jewish Federation’s literacy program, KOREH L.A., and at Let’s Read, another volunteer tutor literacy program.
He also serves as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court; as a volunteer at Five Acres, an organization that promotes the safety and welfare of at-risk children and their families; and at a number of other organizations and initiatives, most of which focus on children and teens in need.
It all started one day when Armin and Marilyn were at Temple Israel of Hollywood, where they are members. He heard that KOREH L.A. was looking for volunteers.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a piece of cake. I can walk across the street and do that,’ ” Szatmary said. Their apartment is next to West Hollywood Elementary School.
As he tells it, he didn’t envision his dabbling in the volunteer world would lead to what has become multiple positions.“It just happened that way,” he said.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1936, Szatmary described in his not-too-thick Boston accent how one of his “students,” a girl named Neida, is the most “absolutely adorable little Hispanic girl that you could think of.” His wife proudly brought downstairs a poster Neida drew for Armin that read, “Your the best teacher. Your my favorite.” (Reminder: Szatmary helps kids with reading, not spelling.)
“Coming from a family and a religion where reading is very important,” Szatmary said he is acutely aware that, “not being able to read well really hampers you — it puts you behind the eight ball.”
He described his progress with his current KOREH L.A. tutee as an “uphill struggle,” detailing another difficult aspect of his work, one where he sees the type of background some of his students come from. On Fridays, he assists at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park as a CASA. There, he often sees fathers of the children he helps brought into court in jail suits and handcuffs.
His role is to independently investigate foster children’s circumstances and report his findings to the court, making sure the kids’ guardians are looking after them responsibly.
“A child being taken from its family, even when [the child is] being terribly mistreated, is a terrible trauma, and most of the children don’t recover from it, and that’s not right,” Szatmary said.
As the interview came to a close, his wife noticed that Armin was underselling the impact that he has had on so many children, whether through KOREH L.A. or CASA:
“All that we can hope is that you give them the best life that they can possibly have,” Marilyn said. “He works very, very hard to do that.”