David J. Weir has carried around a love of teaching and a love of words for most of his life. However, when he was honored with a prestigious Mary Catherine Strobel Award, suddenly he found himself at a loss for words.
“I think I said two words: thank you,” remembered Weir. “It was surprising. When the award was announced, I said, ‘It’s a mistake. I know it’s a mistake.’ It scared the heck out of me.”
Fear aside, it was no mistake. The 79-year-old parishioner at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church in Nashville was the 2023 Strobel Award winner in the Direct Service Volunteer/Older Adult category. Weir had been nominated for his 13 years of helping adults live fuller, more independent lives through his work as a volunteer tutor with the Nashville Adult Literacy Council.
More than 160 volunteers were nominated this year for the award, which celebrates the late Mary Catherine Strobel, a Catholic Nashvillian who showed a selfless dedication to community service, working to improve the lives of those living on the margins. The award recognizes volunteers who continue Strobel’s legacy.
Maggie Yandel, the English Language Learner (ELL) tutor program manager at NALC, nominated Weir for the award by noting how he “tirelessly and selflessly dedicates his time, expertise, and privilege to improving the lives of others.”
“I am grateful for the award,” said Weir, adding that his goal as a volunteer is simply to follow the “good and faithful servant” scripture of Matthew (25:21). “I have done what God wants me to do.”
When the award was announced earlier this year at the 37th annual awards show, hosted by Hands on Nashville, Weir received a $1,000 gift that he could donate to the nonprofit organization of his choice. Without hesitation, he gave the money to the NALC, where he hopes other volunteers will be drawn to help as he has. Weir has worked with more than 50 students, mostly through NALC, teaching group sessions at St. Ignatius, on Zoom, or in a few in-home sessions.
During the pandemic in 2020, Weir used his COVID-19 government stimulus checks to earn his Teaching English as a Foreign Language certification and taught himself how to use Zoom so his tutoring could continue and grow.
“It is simple, but it is not easy,” said Weir. “I’m compelled to do this. Something inside me drives me to it, and I feel privileged that I’m able to do it.”
That attitude is compelling since Weir is dealing with some health issues that are beginning to interfere with volunteer activities, including driving or carrying books. Still, his work ethic seems to fire on all cylinders.
The Allentown, Pennsylvania, native grew up in a hard-working, blue-collar family. He spent time in the U.S. Air Force, worked for decades as a medical technologist in the healthcare industry, and, with his wife, raised seven children. Maybe retirement could have been simple and a privilege, but “work” as a volunteer teacher is nearing its 14th year.
“Oh, it’s not work at all. I love teaching. It’s my gift,” Weir said. “One of my gifts is serving, and I have a talent for teaching, and people have told me that I am good at it.”
He taught and trained medical technology students and assistants, and he home-schooled all his children. Weir loved writing too, especially poetry, and found that a teaching/writing combination made him a good tutor to his students, many of whom learn English through the written word and not from oral recitation of words and phrases.
“I can put these gifts to use in this tiny little area of ELL, but it is impacting one or two lives here and there,” he said.
One of his students was a man from Ghana who wanted to be a truck driver, so Weir taught him English by reviewing commercial driving license requirements and the U.S. Naturalization exam. Another from the Congo, whose first language was French, was a blood banker in his home country, so Weir helped him get a job with the Red Cross in the blood bank as a technician.
Weir said that without volunteer help, his students would get jobs cleaning or sweeping floors, instead of ones they are worthy of getting.
He got a lesson in discrimination with the plight of another of his students, a young Latina woman, who called him to say she would be missing class after she was arrested. He went beyond volunteer work to help her navigate the criminal justice system, accompanying her to court appearances or meetings with her lawyer.
Then he got mad, he said. “I saw how people (in the justice system) show quiet prejudice against people who look different, or because they speak another language, are thought of as stupid.” Weir said he inherently knew that illiteracy is not related to intelligence, and she was a bright, creative person struggling, so he thought, “if not me, who?”
Despite Weir’s help and encouragement, his student had to serve time, and is beset with legal costs. However, Weir visited her in jail, helping her with her English, keeping her spirits up, and working to get her job back when she was released. She earned all A’s in her first semester at Nashville State Community College.
“She is a strong lady, but even the strongest among us can be driven to our knees sometimes. But I am there to help her up,” said Weir. “My role is to be supportive. The Lord put me in her life for a reason.”
Weir said he sees in her the gift of expressive and original writing and feels he has a responsibility to bring out of her what God put in there and to help her be what God perhaps wants her to be.
That story was shared in detail in Yandel’s nomination letter for the Strobel Award. It illustrated the extra mile Weir selflessly goes for his students.
“The award meant a lot to me because it was validation or confirmation that what I was doing was not some crazy, wild hair type of thing, so it made me feel more responsive and gave me greater stimulus to be more active and more responsible in what I am doing,” said Weir.
The award has changed his attitude a bit about his workload and expectations. Weir said he is going to have to cut back compared to what he’s done in the last year and is convinced someone will come along to take the baton from him at the NALC.
“I’m doing what God wants me to do so I am satisfied with that,” he said. “When the time comes for someone else to take the baton, the person will be there if He wants the work to continue. This is not mine, it’s His.”