I always feel awe when I watch a master at his or her craft, whatever it may be. Most recently I experienced that feeling talking to and watching Sister Charles Van Hoy in her volunteer ministry at Educational/Family Services in West Terre Haute.

This 82-year-old “retired” Sister of Providence was recently named the Guerin Outreach Ministries Leadership and Advocacy Award recipient for 2012.

Sister Charles spent 25 years as a school teacher, teaching elementary and middle school students, then she spent another nine years teaching in an adult literacy program, followed by time in parish ministry. Now in her retirement she has spent the past six years tutoring and doing other needed tasks at Educational/Family Services, a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of Providence that provides free tutoring for children and basic education for adults.

In the midst of my interview with Sister Charles, as she talked with great insight about kids and education today, she started talking about the need for kids to memorize their math facts.

“When I see them working their math by counting on their fingers, I tell them, put it in your head and nobody can take it. You lose your fingers and you can still compute.”

I laughed and told her we are having a similar struggle in my house getting my third grader to memorize her math facts. That’s when she gave me the tip: take 5 to 10 minutes every night and work on flash cards with her. “As I told one mom, that’s your job: to spend 5 to 10 minutes a night working on the math facts with the cards.” I can do that, I thought.

Sister Charles Van Hoy practices multiplication math facts using a deck of cards with the little girl she tutors after school at Educational/Family Services.

Later as I took photos of Sister Charles tutoring a student, I learned a new trick with the cards. She took a regular deck of cards, removed the face cards and then she and her student chose a number: the fives. Sister Charles would lay down the card. If the student could get the answer to five times that number without fingers, she kept the card. If she got the answer wrong, the card went to Sister Charles. Looks like fun, I thought.

During our interview I asked Sister Charles why this? Why spend your golden years volunteering at Educational/Family Services?

“I like to teach, but if I’m teaching, I want someone eager to learn. If we’re here and they’re coming to us, they’re coming to learn and not to fool around,” she said.

“I think that one of the best things you can do for people is to educate them. It gives them another chance. I can think of so many things that I couldn’t do the first time around. A second chance is important,” Sister Charles said.

From my observations, the students Sister Charles works with are getting one of the best: a veteran educator who knows what she’s doing and cares about them and their success, one-on-one, personally.

“Here we know people on a first name basis,” she says. “And by the time somebody leaves, we know their grandmas and sometimes even their dogs,” she laughs.

The people who come to Educational/Family Services matter to Sister Charles. And her caring, her warmth and her commitment speak loudly to her co-workers as well.

“Sister Charles is just phenomenal,” says EFS director Penny Sullivan, who nominated Sister Charles for the award.

Penny’s not the only one who thinks Sister Charles is phenomenal. Counted among the ranks now is my 8-year -old daughter.

We’ve tried Sister Charles card game for math facts several evenings. My daughter loves it. She’s having fun, and she’s getting better at her math facts.

“I really like that Sister,” she said.

I’m further convinced that I’ve stood in the midst of a master at education and come out the better for it. I stand in awe, and I offer up a huge sigh of relief. Math homework in my house will soon involve much less whining. I’ve learned first-hand why Sister Charles is well-deserving of this award.

To read more about Sister Charles and her work at Educational/Family Services, click here or visit www.GuerinOutreachMinistries.org or www.EducationalFamilyServices.org to learn more about these ministries.

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