Monday, September 30, 1991

San Diego County Library

Joe won't have to fool them now
Literacy Services offers adults a new chance at life
San Diego Union: September 24, 1991 by Bob Rowland

When Joe Fernandez showed up for a job interview early one cool summer morning, he brought two key props: a newspaper and an application form that had been filled out for him by a friend.

But when Fernandez sat down to scan the application in front of him, his palms began to sweat. One question...then another, and another...didn't match those on the dog-eared sheet of paper in his pocket.

Frustrated and embarrassed, Fernandez slipped out of the personnel office and tossed the newspaper into the trash, knowing that yet another opportunity had slipped through his fingers.

"When you can't read or spell, you can't get anywhere," said Fernandez, 52. "You can fool people -- like I did whenever I took a newspaper with me -- but you can carry it just so far."

Fernandez sat hunched over a steno notebook one night last week during a two-hour learning session at the El Cajon office of the San Diego County Library's Adult Literacy Services.

The program offers free, confidential tutoring to English-speaking adults over 18. The East County office moved in July 1990 to its present location in a nondescript two-story building at 151 Van Houten St.

"Adults in our culture who can't read do get by, but it takes a tremendous amount of energy," said Pamela Carlisle, director of the East County literacy program.

"There is a stigma associated with illiteracy in this country," Carlisle said. "So much so, that people have a terrible time seeking help."

In the past, distance was another stumbling block for East County residents who wanted to take part in the literacy program. Those who owned cars faced a 40-minute commute to Kearny Mesa, where the unit was previously situated. Public transportation was even more challenging, especially for people working unusual hours.

Since moving to downtown El Cajon, Adult Literacy Services has experienced a surge in activity, Carlisle said. Last year, 178 learners took part in the program, which is carried out by three paid staff members and about 150 volunteer tutors.

It has been nearly a year since Fernandez knocked on the door of Adult Literacy Services. He took that step, he said, after a lifetime of daily frustrations -- and at the urging of one of his children.

"I worked as a laborer in construction for more than 15 years, because I didn't have to spell," said Fernandez, who was born and raised in Holtville, Calif. "But I want more now. I want a better job. And I want to be able to write a note to someone, or read a book or a newspaper."

Fernandez and his tutor, Lynda Martinez, have been working together as a team for months, meeting twice a week at the Adult Literacy center to pore over spelling exercises and vocabulary drills.

"I've always loved reading, and I think it's the most important thing I have to share," said Martinez, who works in the marketing department at United Way."

"Every day we talk about helping people," she said. "I came here because I wanted to put my energy and time where my mouth was."

Peering through silver wire-rimmed glasses, Fernandez struggled with the 26 symbols that have both taunted and eluded him his entire adult life.

Martinez repeated a phrase and waited for Fernandez to begin writing: "The cat is out."

The father of four wrote slowly, a No. 2 pencil gripped tightly in his right hand. For Fernandez, and for the estimated 350,000 county residents who cannot read or write, a simple sentence can pose obstacles, close doors, instill fear.

After several attempts and a few erasures Fernandez smiled down at the sentence he had just written.

Another small victory. But there are more ahead.

"I asked a friend of mine if he had seen the movie 'Misery,' and he said he had but that the book was even better," Fernandez said.

"That book is a long way off for me. But it's going to be there when I'm ready."