June Vogel, Director

To Vlad Gimpelevich, an immigrant from the historic and beautiful Crimean city of Yalta, June Vogel is an “amazing” person. Mostly, that’s because Vogel is pretty much responsible for Gimpelevich’s ability to say words like “amazing.”

Vogel, the executive director of the Literacy Volunteers, is a teacher by nature and nurture, a pianist who often plays in her Skillman home to raise funds for her nonprofit organization. She, like many others who volunteer their time to teach literacy, enjoys teaching, language, and interacting with people from many different cultures.

She still finds time to listen to her favorite opera and play her piano. This is a good thing, because this upcoming year, she may have to play lots and lots of piano in an effort to raise funds for her organization.

Literacy Volunteers needs money, and lots of it.

A major problem is one facing agencies, nonprofit and governmental, all over the state of New Jersey. When incoming Governor Jon Corzine and his staff took a look at the books left by previous administrations, they made some hard decisions, and many of those decisions left nonprofit organizations suddenly looking for funding.

Literacy Volunteers is facing a deficit of $52,000 because the forced budget cuts meant that the organization will not get the proportion of its annual operating costs from the state that it has in the past. So the agency must raise a bit more than a third of its budget or it has to reevaluate how to allocate its resources in order to perform its functions, Vogel says.

“That budget reduction has created a giant hole,” she says.

Literacy Volunteers started in Trenton in 1967, and at first it chiefly worked with American-born adults who, for a variety of reasons, had never learned to read well enough to function at work or in their daily lives.

The group, which moved into its present offices on Quakerbridge Road in Hamilton two years ago from the Trenton YWCA, employs one full-timer — Vogel — and two part-timers. It also employs, on a limited basis, independent educational consultants who specialize in subjects such as English as a second language and learning disabilities.

Literacy Volunteers has a library of material that is fascinating to look at; the materials used by the ESL population are geared to adults, but written at an elementary-school level. “We don’t want to have adult students feel uncomfortable by having to study something that is written for a five-year-old,” Vogel says.

Vogel is planning, thanks to grants from General Electric and Trenton-based Environmental Connections Inc., to install a four-station computer lab with Internet access and software for improving language learning and lifestyle skills. In 2007 she aims to offer basic and intermediate computer classes, plus online ESL courses.

Yet she is worried. The single largest contribution to her budget was the now missing $52,000 sum from the state’s network of One-Stop Career Centers, which administered federal monies to local charities and agencies that helped county residents in a variety of ways.

Vogel’s organization does continue to receive its share of a state labor department and workforce development grants, which total $550,000 (see article below). It is one of six literacy organizations that divide up the money. Of Literacy Volunteers’ annual budget of $145,000, this grant is expected to contribute $30,000.

Vogel hopes to obtain grants from private foundations and corporations and other government monies and has also increased her fundraising events, such as the recent musical fundraiser that raised $3,400.

“But it’s going to be a long way to make up $52,000,” says Vogel. “We want to be able to continue to provide services at the same level. And if we can’t, we’re going to have to cut back drastically on what we provide.”

For instance, some of the training classes for volunteers would be eliminated. “The fewer tutors we have, the fewer students can be helped,” she says. The agency would also buy fewer textbooks, and the computer classes, lacking professional teachers, would be curtailed.

“Anything that is not the absolute basic minimum services, any additional programs, would have to be eliminated,” she says.

The demographics have changed markedly since Vogel first began working with the agency, she says.

“We have students of all levels, from many different countries, kind of a United Nations here,” says Vogel. “The students can be literate in their own language, but some are not.”

This, she says, presents a unique set of challenges for tutors and students alike. Many students come from cultures where the alphabet is different. “Not only do they have to learn our language, but they also have to learn a new set of letters and sounds on top of everything else.”

Unlike the basic literacy students, who get one-on-one tutoring, most of the ESL students are placed in small groups, at least at first. “We feel that it’s beneficial to the students to hear other students speak. There are more activities they can do together in a small group,” says Vogel. “We also have English conversation classes, in three levels, beginner, intermediate, and advanced.”

“When I started in 1997, it was three-quarters basic literacy and one-quarter ESL,” Vogel says. “It’s now completely reversed. This state is the fourth-smallest state, but has the fifth-largest number of immigrants in the country. For every student that we match with a tutor, there are two more that walk into the door. Our student waiting list is always over 100, and often more than 150.”

Vogel has taken an interesting path to her current occupation. A native of Brooklyn, she grew up a musical child prodigy. Vogel majored in elementary education and music education at what is now SUNY-Cortland and also at Hofstra University. In 1969 she received a master’s degree in music education from Rutgers University.

For 30 years, Vogel was an elementary school music and reading teacher in Ohio, Maryland, and New York. In the 1980s, for almost three years, when her husband, George, was working for a multinational company that produced fans and blowers for electronic devices, they lived in Birmingham, England. Her husband is now a part-time photographer at Town Topics, and they have two children and two grandchildren.

In 1997 Vogel began working with Literacy Volunteers as a tutor. About a year later, the agency’s then-executive director asked Vogel to work part-time in the agency’s office. Two months after that, the executive director left, she was appointed as coordinator and then executive director. “When I started we had 39 students. Now we have more than 325,” she says.

“I got to the point in my life where I had worked so hard teaching piano that I was ready for a change,” she says. “I loved to read, and I’d always enjoyed teaching reading. I was ready to move on to something else. But it never occurred to me that I would be running a literacy organization. I simply started as wanting to help people learn to read.”

On the Thursday night of our visit, Bukari Fuseini, a quiet man whose eyes and forehead showed concentration and intensity, sat with Michael Thiel, who was tutoring him, as the two of them read a passage from a textbook.

Fuseini, 40, is from Ghana. He hopes that his English studies will help him, and his family, improve their life in America. “This is very, very hard,” the warehouse worker, who lives in Hamilton, says after class. “But I like coming here, and I hope this will help my family and me.”

Which leads to the story of Vlad and Alla Gimpilevich, who have been studying English with Vogel for the past five years and have improved their lives as a result of their study with her.

Presently, both Gimpileviches work at the Mercer County Library’s West Windsor branch. The couple live in East Windsor. Since leaving Yalta, the resort town on the Black Sea in the Crimean Peninsula of the Ukraine, the two have struggled with cultural assimilation and the loneliness that comes from moving thousands of miles away from home and family, but the couple, now proud grandparents to two American-born children, have thrived nonetheless.

“When you come here, you feel all alone,” says Alla Gimpilevich. “You don’t know what to do, where to go, you are simply afraid to go out. June answered so many questions we had, helped us feel more safe.”

In terms of pure English knowledge, it is Alla who has made the most progress. Vlad enjoys self-deprecatingly needling himself and his wife about his inability to speak the language. “English has been very difficult for me,” the 62-year-old says. “I try so hard because I want to speak it. I can read and write, but speaking is a problem.”

Both Vlad and Alla, 56, started as library staffers three years ago as pages — the entry-level job that involves shelving books and other manual tasks. Vlad is still a page, but Alla has been promoted to the circulation desk because her English has improved so markedly.

“When we started with June, it was very difficult for her to teach us,” Alla Gimpilevich says. “We were like zero in terms of our English. She made a lot of effort to help us. I think until the end of my life I will owe her,” Alla says.

Literacy Volunteers in Mercer County Inc., 3535 Quakerbridge Road, Ibis Plaza, Suite 105, Hamilton 08619; 609-587-6027; fax, 609-587-6137. June Vogel, executive director. Home page: www.princetonol.com/groups/lvamc

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