Center for Literacy honors a committed volunteer


When Assunta “Dolly” DiJoseph instructs mathematics today at the Old City-headquartered Center for Literacy, she will continue to laud learning as a life-changing aid well worthy of one’s devotion.

Along with motivating students to master numbers, the 91-year-old volunteer appreciates helping them to solve non-classroom-situated dilemmas, with the organization commending her June 11 by granting her its Joan & Richard Behr Exceptional Service Award.

“Oh, it definitely surprised me to hear my name,” the resident of the 800 block of Dickinson Street said last week at the 45-year-old education provider’s main office, also the site of last month’s ceremony. “I almost didn’t want to rise, but when I did, I just thanked everyone for giving me the honor and reminded the audience that educators make a difference.”

In praising such professionals that evening, though, the Passyunk Square dweller conferred kudos only on her colleagues and not herself, as she credits their dedication, including that of Richard Behr, a Center for Literacy reading tutor and a resident of the 700 block of South Clifton Street who has distributed the eponymous award since 2008, for her success. Their concern certainly guided her early last decade when she, like so many of her present charges, decided to earn her high school equivalency.

“I had no fear about resuming my studies even after all those years,” DiJoseph, who dropped out as a West Catholic High School sophomore to tend to her ill mother and found work to help her family after her matriarch’s passing, said. “I wanted to show that no matter what someone’s age is, education is possible.”

The friendly figure made her initial attempt a family affair, as she and granddaughter Rita took instruction at the Tolentine Community Center, 1025 Mifflin St., and the South Philadelphia Branch, 1700 S. Broad St., before venturing to Center City to tackle her current agency’s Adult Diploma Program, a curriculum involving more than 150 tasks designed to increase real-world knowledge.

“I found it very interesting and really loved it,” DiJoseph, whose diminutive stature as a baby led her mother to nickname her “Dolly,” said of addressing consumer economics, cultural awareness, government/citizenship/law, health and self-awareness and occupational knowledge chores. “I completed the program in seven months and really felt good about myself when I did.”

Graduating at 79, she became one of the organization’s oldest alumni and sought to reciprocate the endowment of belief by striving to assist similarly wisdom-hungry pupils. She landed part-time employment with the company shortly afterward, working with overseer Scott Bostwick to facilitate relationships between learners and their assignment assessors, with a full-time receptionist position at its Center City Gallery for Learning occupying her until ’09.

“I’d made minimum wage until I became full-time, and they had to let me go because of budget cuts,” DiJoseph said with a laugh. “I figured I’d want to stay involved somehow, so I chose to volunteer, and that’s been great because from doing it, I really feel as if I’m helping people.”

During her unpaid stint, the nonagenarian has worked at three sites and has relied on her ample life experience to complement her explanations of mathematical operations. While scholastic matters greatly appeal to her as she visits two classes each Thursday, she knows serving as a positive voice often matters more to her successors than her discussing long division.

“Many of them come with multiple problems, such as being from dysfunctional families and having histories of drug abuse and homelessness, among others,” DiJoseph said. “So many of them lack culture and values, too, so I’m trying to instill those in them. I’ve come to feel fortunate over the years for what my life has been, so I’m looking to help them believe in a bright future.”

Her tireless attention to their welfare caught the eye of her superiors earlier this year, with their naming her the Behr Award recipient the least they could do, according to Kathy Meck.

“Dolly is remembered by so many people because she’s always cared about their overall life journey,” the Center for Literacy director of development and marketing said. “She’s a testament to the power of human interaction and inspiration.”

Though she indeed has won permanent placement in the hearts of learners, many whom she still sees all over the city, DiJoseph favors refraining from self-aggrandizement and never uses her age to accentuate anything other than seeing it as a tool to encourage younger, perhaps doubt-laden, students to persevere no matter the odds.

“I’d been out of school for more than six decades, raised a family, had jobs and still believed getting smarter wasn’t out of my reach,” she said. “Plus, being around everyone gives me something great to do, so why wouldn’t I stay? As long as I’m living, I’ll be coming to CFL.”

In line with her quest for heightened sophistication, DiJoseph recently completed a trip to Greece, Italy and Turkey and uses the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center, 1430 E. Passyunk Ave., to learn Italian and yoga. An active member of the parish community at Annunciation B.V.M., 1511 S. 10th St., she also revels in occasions to bond with her family through parties and picnics. Though her primary clan has engineered the lion’s share of her memories, her secondary set is also delighting her brain.

“I love the CFL community,” she said. “There’s that old saying ‘Use it, or lose it,’ and I love using my mind, especially for these learners.”

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at or ext. 124.