February 1, 2012

AmeriCorps expands senior's horizons

Volunteer who speaks 4 languages assigned to agency staff


PLATTSBURGH — God dag. Bonjour. Kon nichi wa. Good day.

Marita Boulos's facility with languages — Swedish, French, Japanese and English — has been her ticket to employment since the 1970s.

Fresh out of Loyola College in Montreal and a young wife, she worked for a year as a full-time Berlitz language instructor.

"In the '70s, it was more popular, like the Rosetta Stone they push now," said Marita, who is an AmeriCorps volunteer at Literacy Volunteers of Clinton County.

"It was a new concept to have language taught through repetition, the way a child learns it, rather than grammar. Now, this is 40 years later."

Before relocating back to the North Country in 2008, she and her late husband, Ken, had operated a business in Rouses Point. She attends the Three Steeples United Church, where she met tutors who introduced her to Literacy Volunteers. She tutored a couple of years before being asked to become a board member.

"I like to work with people," Marita said.

"I mostly have experience teaching English as a second language. In Japan, I taught many years. Even as a high-school student, I taught conversational English."


The daughter of Swedish parents/Protestant missionaries, she was born in then-Peking, China. Her parents, Helge and Gertrud Jansson, studied English in the United States before embarking on their journey to China right after World War II.

"They didn't get very far. They got there in '47. While they were studying, the conflict before the nationalists and the communists was going on. In 1948, the communist troops gained control over the city. I was born in May 1948," Marita said.

When Peking fell to communist control, nationalist troops came to their compound. All foreigners had to leave in 24 hours.

"I was a baby, and I had an older sister, Neta. We were refugees. My parents grabbed what they had. They had to go on a freight train. They made it out safely on the last train. Later, the other people came out on foot and donkey because the bridge was blown out."

Arriving at a seaport, the Swedish refugees made their way to Hong Kong and remained a year.


"Many foreigners ended up there. Then, they went on to Taiwan as missionaries. And then, on to Japan. They settled in Japan when I was 2 years old. They were pioneer missionaries. I grew up moving from town to town," she said.

Her brother, Berndt, was born there. Her parents taught English and preached the gospel and her mother taught Swedish cooking. When they gathered enough people to form a small congregation, they would relocate again to start another church.

"By the time I finished college, I moved 42 times in my life. I grew up in Japan and graduated from an international high school," she said.


En route to Sweden, she stopped over in Canada and stayed. She attended Loyola, where she majored in English honors and minored in fine arts. She also married her husband, a Canadian whose parents had immigrated from Egypt.

When they left Canada, she and her husband settled in New York. It was hard for Marita to get work despite her degree. She grew frustrated when she couldn't find a company to sponsor her. Then, she hit upon the idea of working at the United Nations, only a 45-minute bus ride away from Westfield.

"The United Nations, that's an international territory. They have diplomatic immunity," she said. "I called to see if I could get an interview to work for the Secretariat. It was very difficult and competitive."

They asked how old she was. When she revealed she was 20-something, she was encouraged to apply as a tour guide. She's sure that speaking Swedish, Japanese, French and English was the reason she was among the 19 chosen from a field of 365 applicants.

At the time, tour guides had to be female and less than 30 years of age. The young women wore high-heel shoes and walked five miles a day giving five tours of the complex.

"I could only do it for two years. Soon after that, my husband left his job and ended up in Japan. My son, Shane, was born in Japan. My daughter, Kelly, was born when we came back," she said.

Sudden DEATH

Ken left the corporate world and started a manufacturing business in Canada. The couple decided they would live in the United States, and he would commute to work. They landed in Rouses Point in 1981 and remained until 1985.

The Bouloses moved back to New Jersey and ran their own manufacturing business. In 2005, Ken died suddenly while traveling with Shane on business in Los Angeles.

"It was just a shock. He was very fit. He was a geological and chemical engineer. It is a very specific science. I could not continue that business. It was not for me. It wasn't my field. I made a very drastic decision. I had nothing much to keep me there. I decided the place I really wanted to be was up here. It reminds me a lot of Sweden, the landscape. Personally, I was tired of the metropolitan area," Marita said.

After running the office, handling customer service and billing in her husband's business, Marita knew she didn't want another office job, but she was too young to retire.

"Twenty-five years, that was enough," she said.


Through AmeriCorps' host site at Literacy Volunteers, she teaches ESL and assists with the citizenship class. She also teaches basic literacy at the Chazy and Champlain libraries twice a week to extend the organization's outreach to the Northern Tier. Trained online, she also assists in the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which teaches computer literacy, primarily to seniors.

"They are scared of the computer," Marita said. "Some people really have trouble. They're really intimidated. It's a course to help them get comfortable with the computer, create an email address, research online or whatever they need."

The beauty of Literacy Volunteers is the one-on-one instruction, she said. One of the side benefits is meeting people from around the world. In the current citizenship class, they have 12 students from nine countries.

"It's really interesting," she said.

APPLYing PAST to present

Marita also enjoys working with her AmeriCorps peers, who are primarily college age or post-college.

"I'm just impressed by the quality of their attitude toward life in general, their mores, social consciousness and how accomplished they are. This group of kids teach me a lot of what is going on in the current world with the younger generation," she said.

For now, Marita has found a place to use her skills.

"I'm in the field I like to be in," she said. "The most interesting thing is something happens or someone walks in, and I can apply something from my past that is applicable."

On her very first day, a Haitian woman, speaking perfect French, asked for directions to Literacy Volunteers. Executive Director Norma Menard had Marita take the call.

"It's amazing," Marita said.

"You never know what's going to happen. It sounds a little bit corny, but I enjoy going to work every morning. I don't think there's anything better."

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