Samih Baalbaki is Home at the Palmetto Literacy Council

‘Rewards I gain as volunteer are priceless’

By Kim Reischling

Author Herman Melville once said, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.”

Hundreds of those fibers connect the volunteers, students, and parents of the Palmetto Literacy Council. The fibers are strong, joining like-minded people that share a common desire: Helping students reach their goals in reading and math, the building blocks of their future. That is no small task. It takes the united efforts of everyone involved with the Palmetto Literacy Council. And those efforts are the fiber, the reason for our existence.

That’s why this and subsequent articles will highlight the people that have joined to share those goals: Volunteers, parents, and of course, our students.

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.”  That quote, by journalist, Anna Quindlen, seems to exemplify the journey of volunteer Samih Baalbaki, who has found his home at the Palmetto Literacy Council. Samih is dedicated: He also volunteers with Freedom Readers.

Samih, born in Lebanon, is a lawyer by training. But his much-loved homeland was torn apart by the Lebanese Civil War, a multifaceted armed conflict that took place from 1975-1990. The war resulted in an estimated 150,000 fatalities, and also led to the exodus of almost one million people from Lebanon. Living in a home he no longer recognized, Samih left Lebanon, his “beautiful, lovely native country,” and except for short visits to family and friends, never lived there again.

His path to the United States – and volunteerism – was a years-long journey. After leaving Lebanon, Samih lived in Europe, (Belgium and Greece) and Saudi Arabia, and legally immigrated to the United States in 1986. With a son and daughter, also displaced from Lebanon, Samih returned to the Middle East, where he lived in Dubai for 17 years.

Upon returning to the U.S., Samih volunteered immediately, first for the Freedom Readers since 2013, then for PLC where he has been since 2019, when the organization was founded.

Shortly after Samih retired to the U.S, he decided to learn Spanish, and took classes at Coastal Carolina University.  “I wanted to take Greek (he lived there for seven years) but felt Spanish would be more useful,” he said. Spanish classes added to Samih’s repertoire of spoken languages: Arabic, French and English.

With Freedom Readers and PLC, Samih primarily works with Spanish speaking people. “Many of the young students speak only Spanish at home, so that makes it very difficult in school. I learned from the beginning that you must adjust your tutoring to their needs.” That adjustment also prompted Samih to volunteer at their schools to make it easier for both parent and child. During the COVD-19 epidemic, Samih continued tutoring via Zoom.

Samih said he has no secret “recipes” when it comes to tutoring both children and adults, other than ensuring the student does not see him as an authoritarian figure. “Ypu know, it’s not what you tell kids. It’s what you show them.

“Kids are bombarded all week with grammar, math and other subjects at school. I like to tell them about a story I’ve read, and then they do the same for me. My reward is when you come into the room and they want to hug you. You learn so much from your students.”

Samih has been tutoring at PLC for four years now. “I’ve been here from the beginning. I first met Dodi at Chapin Memorial Library when she was operating out of the trunk of her car. There were four or five of us back then,” (Dr. Dodi Hodges is the executive director of the Palmetto Literacy Council.)

At PLC, Samih tutors Hispanic housewives at Patrick’s Mobile Park in Myrtle Beach. “Life is not easy for them, but they are very willing. One student Samih mentions is named Zoyla. “We’ll pick words from the cards from PLC, and I’ll ask her to write four or five sentences from them. It really makes me happy when she does that. It also makes a huge difference when a child sees their parent working so hard, sometimes even struggling with the material. That makes the child want to work hard, too.”

The desire to volunteer – and continue to volunteer – has been an easy choice for Samih. “When you realize how blessed you are and how much life has given you, it’s a natural decision.”

Samih is quick to thank the generous people he’s met along the way – the group at CCU that donated numerous books, the people at Patrick’s Mobile Home Park, who allow him to use an office for tutoring. And when he was asked if there was anything else he wanted to mention for this article, his reply was “Dodi Hodges.

“She’s just wonderful – a miracle worker. You must have her kind of heart to make this work.”

For Samih, leaving his beloved homeland because of a devastating civil war, was just the path he needed to take on his journey as a volunteer.

“There is a reason I had to leave. It’s not for nothing. Maybe it’s destiny, maybe it’s chance, but the rewards I gain as a volunteer are priceless.”

Samih is just one of the fibers that connect those associated with PLC, but it’s a fiber made of finely wrought steel, a fiber that weaves itself throughout our organization. PLC is, and always will be, a sum of all its parts.

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