Coast Literacy Program for Adults:
The Courage to Learn

Story by K. Andarin Arvola

Unfortunately, 40 percent of adult Americans have trouble reading and writing even simple things. They cannot fill out a job application, read instructions on a medicine bottle, read election ballots, or get a driver’s license. The United States ranks forty-ninth among 156 United Nation member countries in its literacy rate, a drop of eighteen places since 1950. Yet, the need for good literacy skills is increasing, especially in the workplace. There are no “typical” nonreaders.
They can be business people, farmers, housewives, truck drivers, office clerks, military personnel; anyone. Fifty-one percent of illiterate adults live in small towns and suburbs, 41 percent live in urban areas, and 8 percent in rural areas. Illiteracy costs the United States more than $225 billion a year in lost productivity. It is tied to unemployment, crime, poverty, and family problems; 75 percent of unemployed adults have reading and/or writing difficulties. Illiteracy is a solvable problem. With only thirty-five to forty-five hours of tutoring, an adult can improve their reading skills by one grade level.

The Coast Literacy Program for Adults is bridging the gap for any adult who wants to improve their reading and writing skills. The program is free and offers one-on-one lessons in a non-threatening and confidential atmosphere. It’s suggested that student and tutor meet in a neutral, public place in the beginning, but it’s entirely up to them. Both have the freedom of choosing where they meet. The tutors are flexible to meet the student’s needs.

Locally, the diversity of students includes a variety of ages, ethnicity, and gender. Though the Latino population has grown in recent years, not many decades ago it was other groups of immigrants. As I was growing up in Fort Bragg the languages were Scandinavian, Portuguese and Italian, many of whom were struggling to learn English. In my case, my father was one of the first children born in the U.S. of Finnish immigrants. When I begged my father to teach me Finnish so I could understand all our neighbors, he would not. He’d say, “You’re an American. You must speak English only.People don’t like it when you speak a foreign language.” And that was that!

Two individuals developed the Coast Literacy Program for Adults—Judith Kayser and Laura Lind. Judith Kayser moved to California from Colorado to be closer to family and return to her native state in 2005. She’d spent fifteen years in Colorado as an elementary school teacher and librarian. She worked for a time on the Mendocino County Bookmobile. “I love the small town atmosphere here and especially the redwoods,” she says. In July of 2006, Judith became the Fort Bragg librarian just in time to begin a huge remodeling project. In September 2006, the library moved to a temporary location. On July 3, 2007 there was a dedication ceremony and opening of the newly remodeled building.

Judith informs me that the coastal community is made up of voracious readers who read widely on all sorts of subjects. They’re well-informed, so the community involvement is terrific.

“I had two main goals when I came to the library—establishing an adult literacy program and a bilingual story time. Both programs are part of the circle of lifelong learning. Another goal of the library is to increase bilingual services and resources by 2015. Currently 25 percent of our county population is Latino.”

Laura Lind is the managing director of the Coast Literacy Program for Adults. “Laura is an outstanding volunteer,” Judith tells me. “She’s done an incredible job in every way—the presentation, development and implementation of the program—and she loves her ‘work.’”

The North Coast is Laura and her husband’s favorite place in the world. Laura exclaims about the climate: the people who are friendly, intelligent and caring, and the cultural richness of the area. And, “Who can beat the beauty of our setting,” she asks?

An English major at UCLA, Laura returned to university twenty-five years ago to learn graphic design, which is still “my day job.” It’s not a surprise that she specializes in the design of books. A lifelong reader, she still remembers “her dear old friend Winnie the Pooh being read aloud to the whole family in the garden.”

“I feel more strongly about literacy than anything I’ve done in my life,” Laura says emphatically. “It enriches my personal life.”

“The big ‘aha’ connection for me is my strong belief that knowledge is power; the power to make your life better. Reading is the key to knowledge and, therefore, to that power. Helping people gain that power and better their lives, from being able to pick a candidate to understanding mortgage contracts to reading instructions, is very close to my heart,” Laura tells me. “So even though my intent was only to tutor, I’m very happy to be running the whole program.”

After Judith Kayser was hired as the librarian, Laura asked about a literacy program and Judith said, “Let’s do it.” They started putting it together in November of 2006.

“The challenge of the Coast Literacy Program for Adults is to communicate with the community through word-of-mouth to urge the people in the program to tell others about it. They’re our best advertisers,” says Laura. “Naturally enough, the people we need to reach probably aren’t reading this article. But, maybe their friends are.”

“We need everyone to spread the word that the Coast Literacy Program is available to attract not only students but tutors,” says Laura. Just now there are seven students and fifteen tutors.

One of the big things that comes out of this is the development of lifelong friendships between student and tutor.
“The library is a place to learn as well as an informational resource. What I see are that the student and tutor may not have been using the library but now they both do,” says Laura.

In addition, Judith tells me that people end up coming to the library with their children for story time or a summer reading program and then tell friends about the library and its programs. Sometimes they end up as volunteers.

The Coast Literacy Program for Adults is part of the California Literacy Campaign. To date, the program is supported by the Friends of the Fort Bragg Library with needed funds for literacy books and materials. Plus, the Mendocino Community Library donated all of their course books for the program.

Students and Tutors

Laura Lind and Bernard Burton have been teamed up, as tutor and student respectively, for just over a year. Bernard has the honor of being the Coast Literacy Program’s very first student. Although he’s originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Bernard moved to the Fort Bragg area from Sacramento three years ago; his mother has lived in Fort Bragg for over thirty-five years.

“Not reading well is something I’ve lived with my whole life,” reveals Bernard. “Laura has given me a new outlook on life.”

He had a speech impediment and when he started in grammar school: “I was terrified to be called on to read because children can be so cruel.” He went to classes to clear up the speech, but “if you can’t sound out a word, how can you pronounce it?” he asks.

When he first walked into the library to find out about the Coast Literacy Program, Bernard asserts, “it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I was doing something positive and worthwhile to face my fears. Now I’ve been in the tutoring program over a year.”

Bernard tells me a favorite saying of his is that “a closed mouth will never be fed.” What it means to him, is if you don’t ask, you won’t get, whether it’s for knowledge, which is what he’s asking for these days, or something else. “I walk every day, it takes effort and sometimes I don’t want to do it but after I have, I never say to myself ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’ It’s the same with learning.”

Bernard walked into the library with a lot of knowledge of life experience but “you may be able to express it in words but not be able to put it on paper,” he says thoughtfully.

Technology today may help the learning process. Bernard recently got a computer. “I just love spell check!”
“I had to work, to survive. I always had good paying jobs. I worked at the Navel Supply Center in Oakland.”
While there were advances, the level at which he read and wrote prevented him from getting some promotions. Just applying for jobs could be problematic.

“I went to the Campbell Soup Company and this person said, ‘Would you read this?’ I told her I needed glasses and left. I walked about a half a block and came back and told her I was a poor reader. I got the job,” he states.

Bernard worked a lot of jobs in construction; he’s a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA); he worked at a slaughterhouse and having recently attended a local play, The Shaker Chair, offered his enlightenment and compassion. “It’s so sad how we treat animals.”

Why now, begin the literacy program?

“I retired four or five years ago so I finally had the time. Plus, it’s a great change of pace here, calmer, and I had a chance to have a new look at life. There are so many interesting people that live here,” he adds.

One book that especially moved Bernard is Life is so Good. It’s about an eighty-five-year-old named George Dawson who was illiterate, yet all six of his children went through college. His illiteracy was a family secret. His children would educate him as they were learning.

Bernard, too, had tremendous support from his family. Out of five children he was the only one who had trouble.
Laura explains that the fundamentals are so important. “If you don’t have them, it’s almost impossible to grasp reading.”
“There’s nothing wrong with not knowing,” Bernard contends. “It’s not asking. Ask for help. It’s empowering helping yourself.

“I’m glad I met Laura; I admire people who give back. Knowledge is to share. I felt I could do it.” He laughs, “Laura didn’t beat me up; she didn’t have a whip. I feel comfortable with her.”

“It took a few months,” says Laura.

“I saw progress,” he emphasizes.

“I get nervous, too. It had been about ten years since I’d done any tutoring. I feel a tremendous responsibility to do it right,” she reveals.

Bernard says, “In my heart I encourage people who have a problem reading. There are programs.” He smiles, “When I go to see Saint Peter it’s something more to put on my resume.”

Bernard says that new things open up; new opportunities. It’s made him more outgoing. Plus, there are so many things going on in the world, and he’s becoming more comfortable. Again, he reiterates, “There’s no shame in not knowing; the shame is not asking.”

Laura tells me that they read the election pamphlets and Bernard says, “I could understand it better.”

He tells me that “I’ve been blessed with nine children. I have a daughter who went to law school. I told her in regard to taking the Bar Exam not to worry about failing. If you miss one, you won’t miss that question again.”

As for himself, “I’m not in that same place I was; I’m moving forward. I was living with not reading well and I now know I have a choice not to. There’s help. I want to see them lining up around the block to get in the library.”

“My second oldest sister Annette is a tutor,” he adds. He hopes someday to be a tutor himself. A goal of his is to study and pass the GED.

Laura says, “I’m in awe of him. It’s a huge step for anyone to take. A life-altering step. It takes a lot of courage.”

She feels she’s been blessed in life. “I’ve had challenges, of course but this isn’t one of them. I can’t even imagine whatit took to walk in that door. Working with Bernard expands his horizons and mine.”

“I’ve always volunteered in some way; given back,” Laura adds. “There’s a high percentage of people who are illiterate. It shocked me to my core—in this country! I lived in Marin County and discovered a great literacy program there. I’ve always been an avid reader, always good at grammar and won spelling bees in school so it seemed like a natural fit for me.”

Working with Bernard is “extremely fulfilling for me. We meet once a week for about one-and-one-half hours. More than having a student, I have a friend,” she concludes.

Time to Learn

Tutor Rich Brown and student Eusebio Ramon have only been meeting for three months, yet they both say there’s already been progress.

Eusebio shares, “I didn’t read well and a friend said that there were tutors at the library. It took a few months until I had enough courage to go in and sign up. Since I met Rich I’ve already learned a lot. Now I can read a newspaper. My ex-wife was a bookworm and I would get jealous that she could read.”

He fell through the cracks in education because he and his family were migrant workers and “I had to take a grade over several times since we never stayed anywhere for long. I went to the fifth grade,” Eusebio says. “My father came from Mexico, my mother from Texas. My brothers and sisters and I were all born in Texas.”

When he turned sixty years old he decided he was going to learn to read better and now “I already read more than I used to.”

“He tells me his brain hurts,” says Rich.

“It’s very hard; I have to work [at it],” Eusebio tells me. “Finally things stick and now they’re there. After I grew up I didn’t want to work in the fields and I also got married. We had three children; two girls and one boy, and now nine grandchildren. I made sure my children got through high school.”

He’s worked for city, county, and state agencies, usually as a custodian. Eusebio has been in California since 1985. He also used to do tile work. “I didn’t need to write but I could read a tape measure.” While at the North Coast Brewery because he could speak English and Spanish he could interpret for those who couldn’t speak English. Now he doesn’t work because of back problems. “All the jobs I’ve had have been six to nine years,” he says proudly.

Rich says that since Eusebio has an interest in history so right now they’re reading an old story about settling the West called Wagon Wheels.

Within the library there are books marked with a “J,” Rich remarks. “These are the juvenile books. They’re easier reading on any topic such as history and, for instance, George Washington Carver.”

“The peanut guy,” says Eusebio promptly.

“Some of those books are too easy now,” Rich says. “We started with very simple books.”

“I still find words I don’t know when I read,” Eusebio tells me. “Reading is like watching TV in my head.”

“He’ll bring me words from books and then when I say them, he knows the words; he just didn’t recognize them in print,” says Rich.

Rich tells me that Eusebio’s principle goal was to compose an e-mail to his children and grandchildren. “I was embarrassed about asking about writing letters because writing is more difficult for me than the printed word,” Eusebio remarks.

“You should see his handwriting though,” says Rich. “It’s beautiful and clear.”

“I also want to write the story of my life,” says Eusebio. “I enjoy making my own sentences; learning punctuation; understanding what it means. I do my homework and now I can do things easier. When I make a mistake—well, I’ll find out.”

“We talked about how many words are so similar,” says Rich. “One day we worked on ‘every’ and ‘very’.”

“I bought a big dictionary at the Paul Bunyan Thrift Shop, it has a thousand pages. One word has so many meanings,” Eusebio remarks.

“One of the things we learned was how the dictionary was arranged and organized,” Rich tells me.

“I never thought I would ever be teaching English. In college I had to take bone-head English. I became an engineer so I didn’t have to use English, and then I spent 70 percent of my time writing!” Rich tells me. “Engineers are very verbose. We would take courses on technical writing and two-thirds of the words were eliminated. It was most helpful, although embarrassing.”

“I hope this program stays forever. I’m doing pretty good and I love history. I’ve always been interested in history and science,” Eusebio concludes.

“It’s been fun,” says Rich.

Determined to Learn

In a plant-filled yard and house I meet with Socorro Jara. Her home is also filled with children since she has a license for child care, Maria’s Child Care. She and her husband Gabriel have owned their home in Fort Bragg since 2000.

Someone told Socorro that the library had a free program to learn to read. She’d had another tutor who spoke a little Spanish who moved. They still keep in touch. One thing that helps is that she knew she could get another teacher.
She and Ahulani connected six months ago although they’re taking a break right now because Socorro is one busy whirlwind of a woman.

Socorro came to the United States in 1989. The first and second year she didn’t learn English but then “I knew I had to learn. I went to the Noyo School two days a week for a year. I can speak but I write better than I speak; it’s easier for me,” she says.

“I want to continue. I want to learn to speak and write perfectly. English is hard because of all the consonants. Spanish is easier to learn, it makes more sense,” Socorro tells me. “I learned how to speak in the past tense from Ahulani. Before I only spoke in the present tense. ‘I break my arm two years ago’ and now I know that [with] ‘I broke my arm.’ I
can be understood better.”

“Ahulani shows me examples of ways to understand ‘hard’ words. For example, ‘to kneel,’ she said ‘when you go to church you kneel on your knees,’ then I understood,” shares Socorro.

She works with the Fort Bragg High School system to represent Spanish-speaking parents and to get information to them. She meets with the principal once a month. Socorro is on the English Learner Advisory Committee. “There are lots of programs for second-language learners,” Socorro tells me. “I recommend that anyone go and learn more. If they know a little they can improve.”

“So much of this program is acknowledging the achievement of the student. They may not know how good they already are; they just don’t know,” she says. “The hardest thing I faced was making Socorro understand how hard the English language is to learn; how it’s not something you can learn overnight—or instantly.

“Another thing is that making mistakes was a good thing. It wasn’t about turning in a perfect paper that her children had corrected,” Ahulani smiles, “which she did at the beginning. This is not to ‘please’ the teacher but [to understand] that the mistakes just showed us what we had to work on. If we hide the mistakes we’re lost. We’re continually learning together what works and what doesn’t—we’ve both made mistakes.”

A big challenge was the busy, busy life of Socorro. She’s a wife, a mother, a daycare provider, and with her involvement in the schools, her church and the community, she has limited time for one more thing. “I feel honored that she fit me and our learning into her very busy life,” she says.

“Socorro’s desire to improve her English was not just for her personal gain, but comes from her strong desire to help integrate Latinos into the existing community,” Ahulani informs me.

“Interestingly enough I share her desire to connect and serve the Latino community because I feel it will ultimately enrich all of us. I was delighted to be ‘assigned’ a Latino student,” said Ahulani.

As with all students and tutors there was a time of getting to know each other. Our cultures approached learning differently. For example, “our informal American style can be uncomfortable for some foreign students used to a more formal student and tutor relationship,” Ahulani informs me.

It’s help with everyday stuff that students need. Each student has different areas of interest which change over time. “In the beginning we did recipes, reviewed the paperwork for daycare licensing, things like that. We had a hilarious time reading the nearly incomprehensible instructions and then having to call the store about her new stove,” says Ahulani.

“Socorro has picked difficult books and on her own has stuck with them and come to an understanding of their content,” Ahulani tells me. “She’s extremely good at figuring out what unfamiliar words mean through their context and very brave to guess.”

“She’s immediately present with whatever is going on and able to prioritize her busy life,” Ahulani informs me. “We would recite the past tense while she was feeding a baby.”

Ahulani tells me “that sometime we would cheer when she realized her kids, the eleven- and sixteen-year-olds, were wrong and mother was right about a vocabulary and grammar assignment.”

It was also touching that the family trusted Ahulani to take their sixteen-year-old daughter to the airport for a trip to Mexico.

“An aspect of our ongoing friendship is that she’s invited me to a Mother’s Day celebration in the Latino community,” says Ahulani. “That means a lot to me. Then after the celebration is over we can start up again with our tutoring.”

Confidence to Learn

Fran Schwartz has been tutoring a sixty-year-old woman with several grown children. This woman completed the sixth grade but then was needed by her family to go to work.

As with many others, since her children are now grown, Anna (a pseudonym for the sixty-year-old) has a bit more time for herself. Anna read with some difficulty but she would assume or guess what something meant, or ask her daughter.

She continues to ask for advice. For instance, she asked a tax consultant about retirement plans and paperwork.

Not reading and writing well did affect her life, but she managed. Anna was too busy to feel restricted.

Now was the time to get help again, she decided. She’d been tutored before and even though that tutor had moved away, they’d stayed in touch. Unfortunately there was a lapse in her studies because she thought the program was no longer available when her tutor moved.

Increasing her reading skills now means that “I can pick up a book or anything and read a little faster. I want to be able to write. I have limited time. It used to take so long to read anything.”

While Anna was visiting a daughter out of the area, her daughter remarked that Anna had three books with her. Anna explained to her, “I’ll be done with this one and I’ll need more to read.”

Her children were able to get educations beyond what Anna was able to get. “I feel great, all my children went to college. They can use their brains. It’s a lot easier; they won’t have to work like we (she and her husband) did. I’ve always wanted them to do the best they can.”

When Fran Schwartz and her husband moved to the North Coast in 2005, being involved in a literacy program was “at the top of the list of things I wanted to do when retired.”

Fran’s father was an immigrant from Poland; her mother born in the U.S. In her generation, school was a privilege. She came from a family that was always reading, Fran informs me. “I was read to as a child. Reading was a part of our life like the food we ate.”

She carried on reading with her own children and now with her granddaughter. “It’s fun to read to her,” she says happily, “and buy books for her.”

Fran tells me that it’s interesting to ask people what book(s) made a profound effect on their lives? I think of several of my own.

“I was a French teacher long ago and retired in 2004.” Since there was no literacy program at the time, she took the creative writing class at the College of the Redwoods and sang in the CR chorus, both of which she still does.

Fran and her student began in April of 2007. They’ve just celebrated their first anniversary.

Fran receives a lot from tutoring. She describes it as, “The joy of watching another person become so much more comfortable with reading and her excitement because of her increased confidence in her abilities.”

“At first Anna was intimadated,” Fran explains. “She was a tentative, cautious reader. That fear is really gone, now she can enjoy and have the satisfaction of reading.”

A common experience with Anna and many students is the desire for perfection in reading and writing. Tutors want mistakes, lots of mistakes, to better access where the student needs work or doesn’t.

Another characteristic is the hunger for a wider knowledge, “She told me she wanted to learn about the world around her; wanted knowledge, not just to read novels and stories,” states Fran.

They started out with young adult biographies, especially inspiring ones about women; Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt and others who overcame obstacles in their lives. Harriet Tubman was particularly interesting to Anna, Fran reports.

At first Fran chose the books; that lasted a few months, and then Anna began to choose her own books.

“Since she’s a citizen, she registered to vote and we read the voter pamphlet together,” Fran tells me. Anna is well integrated in the community.

“What I see are the intangibles, her confidence. And, although she already had good self-esteem, it’s exciting to see she feels even better about herself,” says Fran. “Now she can read for pleasure. It’s good for her and good for her grown children.”

Practical issues make up everyone’s life, such as being able to read about health issues, nutrition in general, and to read and understand food labels, sodium content and about exercise.

Good decisions are important. Anna wanted to buy a car and wondered what kind. She and Fran researched; Anna took home Consumer Reports to read after they’d discussed how to use it.

“Early on she wrote me a thank-you note. I was so touched. I’ve kept it. Writing was so difficult for Anna but not so much now. We used this as a lesson and wrote thank-you notes to real people,” adds Fran. “It’s so exciting,” exclaims Fran, “she’s so motivated.”

Want to Learn?

Interested tutors can attend an orientation and informational meeting, for about an hour, to see if it’s right for them.

There is a tutor training. Potential tutors don’t need credentials, just a willingness to help and the ability to speak, read and write English well. If it’s something they want to do, they attend a one-day training session. The training gives basic tips to get tutors going, introduction to teaching materials and role-playing.

The tutors are responsible for scheduling with their student, informally assessing the student’s reading level and, most important, determining the student’s immediate and long-term goals. The tutoring is based on meeting the student’s needs. A minimum six-month commitment is asked of the tutor and to meet at least once a week.

Want to be a Student?

The literacy program does not contact individuals. They need to contact us,” Laura emphasizes. “They gotta wanna.” It bears repeating that students (eighteen years old and over) need to be able to speak English well enough to communicate with their tutor. The student needs to show the motivation and commitment to improve their lives through reading and writing better.

Again, a minimum six-month commitment is asked of the student and tutor and to meet at least once a week.

General information is gathered on a simple form; an interview is set up to explain how the program works. Laura meets with the student and lets them know what to expect. Then the student and the tutor’s information are evaluated to find the best match possible for them. Schedules and personal preferences, like non-smoking, the person’s interests,
such as gardening, are looked at so the tutor and student have things in common.

Learn to Read – Read to Learn

While we may not be able to knock a huge hole in that 40 percent national illiteracy rate, within our local community there’s a group of dedicated people ready to help. There is no shame, no blame with illiteracy. As we’ve seen, many people do not read or write well for a variety of reasons and as one student put it, “There’s nothing wrong with not knowing,” Bernard contends. “It’s not asking. Ask for help. It’s empowering helping yourself.”

Primary Contact:
Laura Lind
Managing Director, Coast Literacy Program
707.964.8794 (9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
lindesign@mcn.org

Judith Kayser
Librarian, Mendocino County Library
499 Laurel Street, Fort Bragg, CA 95437
707.961.2020 Reception
707.961.2625 Direct
707.961.2623 FAX
e-mail: kayserj@co.mendocino.ca.us

 

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