"If you cannot read this sign, call Literacy Volunteers today.” It’s an old joke, and not a very funny one. America’s seemingly sunny 99 percent literacy rate has many clouds on its horizon, says the U.S. Department of Education. The latest literacy survey indicated as many as 44 million Americans (23 percent) bordered on functional illiteracy — unable to total a deposit slip or locate a simple word in a short prose sentence.
Closer to home, an estimated 60,000 adult Mercer County residents read at a fifth-grade level or below. Combating this destructive epidemic for the last 32 years, the Literacy Volunteers in Mercer County Inc. pairs those fortunate enough to have the gift of reading with those in need. Currently the LVMC is putting out a call for volunteer tutors to take its essential training course. Running three hours, once a week for seven weeks, the daytime sessions begin Friday, September 10, at 10 a.m. through October 29. Evening sessions start Monday, September 13, at 6 p.m. and continue through October 25. These free, 21-hour courses are held at the LVMC center, 3535 Quakerbridge Road, Ibis Plaza, Suite 104, in Hamilton. Call 609-587-6027 or visit www.princetonol.com/groups/lvamc.
Literacy Volunteers in Mercer County, an affiliate of ProLiteracy America (www.proliteracy.org), currently boasts 200 volunteer tutors, guided by executive director #b#Cheryl Kirton#/b# and her two part-time staff. Kirton aggressively recruits her volunteer tutors through libraries, churches, schools, adult communities, and from the ranks of retired educators. “Yet anyone over age 18 with a good command of English is invited to get qualified for our initial course,” says Kirton.
A career public-service veteran, Kirton grew up in Hampton, Virginia, in the well ordered home of a retired sergeant major father who worked for Hampton University. Graduating from Rutgers in 1982 with her bachelor’s in urban planning, Kirton held a succession of area governmental and non-profit positions, including Plainsboro Township planner. She grew increasingly aware of the need for solid literacy skills while working for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency and the Newtown Friends School. Her past two years as LVMC executive director have been “an excellent and rewarding fit for me,” she says. Here are some of her challenges:
#b#The need expands#/b#. Unfortunately the rate of both state and county illiteracy is on the rise. Part of this is due to our nation’s historically unprecedented gush of immigration. Mercer alone has seen a 48 percent increase in the last two decades. One in four New Jersey residents speaks a language other than English in the home. These English as a Second Language (ESL) students make up 88 percent of the LVMC students.
Meanwhile, the number native-born, American Basic Literacy students (ABLs) continue to grow. Those who have slipped through our educational system’s cracks and fall below basic literacy proficiency are 14 times more likely to end up in prison than those who read well, says the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.
#b#The tutors’ challenge#/b#. Upon graduation from their 21-hour training course, LVMC’s new tutors are equipped with a binder bulging with lesson plans and ideas. They have, during their course, witnessed training sessions and received aid from a pronunciation coach.
The center also has consultants ready to aid its new tutors. Some will run or assist in English conversation classes held weekly at local libraries. Students with a wealth of worldwide native languages and varying amounts of English proficiency come to practice and improve. “It is a wonderful way to travel the globe without ever leaving the room,” says one veteran tutor.
Other tutors may help run the instruction classes at the LVMC center. Over 125 students attend such classes before being individually paired with a private teacher. “We have another 500 would-be students on the waiting list for this program,” says Kirton.
But most tutors will fill out their preference sheet and get matched with an individual student with whom they will form a long and infinitely rewarding relationship. Learning to read and write English is no quick study, particularly when you have a full-time job and a family to raise. But those willing to commit to the struggle find a strong, caring friend and help mate in their tutor.
Typically student and tutor meet weekly in a local library of their choosing at a convenient time. The course is based on each student’s specific need and what will best help improve his lot most immediately. Students and tutors retain the tie often two to even seven years. But the immense rewards swing both ways, with the tutor becoming a mentor in more than words. For immigrants this often means a very personal guidance in this new land.
Recently, immigrant Russian artist Marina Ahunbaba was spending her days in Princeton sketching various university buildings. Her renditions caught the watchful eye of a security guard who explained to her that she couldn’t do that sort of thing. Undaunted, Ahunbaba took her problem to her tutor who spearheaded her request through the Princeton University bureaucracy. Upon reviewing her work, university officials were so impressed they commissioned her to make several drawings, one of which now hangs in the LVMC offices.
For those who think in tax dollars, it currently costs $23,000 per year to keep an individual in jail (a figure which has risen 127 percent since 1993). 70 percent of those in jails cannot read. Yet if they receive literacy help, such as is given by the Literacy Volunteers in Mercer County, the odds of their returning drops from 65 to 16 percent.
For those with a more human vision, the personal bond you make as a tutor with your student makes it one of the most beneficial donations you can possibly undertake.