Monday, March 31, 1997


Daily News of Los Angeles: March 9, 1997 by Victoria Giraud

Kathleen Sterling has donated 5,000 hours of her time to the Santa Clarita Literacy Program, and for her dedication is the Public Library Volunteer of the Year.

``I'm really honored,'' Kathleen said, ``but I was simply a conduit to bring literacy to the forefront. There's a real need out there.''

With 1.8 million English-speaking adults in Los Angeles County who cannot read or write beyond the fourth-grade level, Kathleen sees a need to offer support and guidance. It's tough, she said, to be illiterate while struggling to work and raise children.

``They're not stupid. These are people with average to superior intelligence who didn't make it in a typical classroom setting,'' Sterling said.

Kathleen was living in San Diego three years ago when the Northridge Earthquake hit, the distant jolts awakening her and opening an opportunity to head north to work as a volunteer. She joined Volunteers In Service To America and found herself working to re-establish and expand the local literacy program at the quake-damaged Valencia Library.

After two years of service, she became a literacy outreach specialist and is now paid for her part-time work.

Among her many responsibilities, Kathleen recruits and trains tutors, and she has expanded the program to include English as a second language tutoring and Spanish literacy.

Kathleen recruits for and facilitates the Families for Literacy Program, which enables entire families (the only qualification is that they have one child under the age of 5), to learn and improve reading and writing skills. She does monthly family literacy workshops, teaches an ESL class, and has helped develop a group tutoring class for adults with learning disabilities.

As an example of how the program helps, Kathleen cited the case of a man in the adult basic English program. The man loved geology, and so she matched him with a tutor who worked for the county's Building and Safety Department. In addition to improving his literacy, the man learned to read topographic maps, got his truck driver's license and is now considering pursuing a college degree.

Before getting interested in literacy, Kathleen spent more than 20 years in the health and medical care field. She can relate to people struggling to better themselves. As she comments, ``done that, been there.''

As a pregnant, unmarried 18-year-old in the 1960s, Kathleen was on welfare, a ``very humbling'' experience. ``I could see how welfare workers treated you. They don't treat you very kindly,'' she remembered. ``I was a good student; it made me a survivor.''

She received medical training that got her off welfare and sparked a lifelong interest in health care. In the 1970s, Kathleen moved to Lake Tahoe and got involved organizing the Rural Health and Welfare Rights grassroots advocacy and consumer education group. Later, she was part of a task force on fraud and abuse of the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, and went on to get involved in California's efforts to reform Medi-Cal as the consumer representative for the Advisory Committee of Health and Medical Care Services.

As a single mother, Kathleen raised daughter Heather, now 27 and a mother of two, to be a critical thinker. ``She came with me and saw her mom develop public policy,'' Kathleen reminisced. Heather is such a believer in literacy that she started reading to her babies while they were still in the womb, a practice that Kathleen says is a valuable one. ``A child will advance much more quickly with cognitive abilities.''

``I've fulfilled three fantasies'' from childhood, Kathleen explained enthusiastically. She wanted a college education - she got her bachelor's degree from Pitzer College in Claremont - and she also wanted to attend the University of Oslo. In 1992, she was asked to represent the U.S. as a consumer advocate along with 20 health care professionals from developing countries to evaluate Norway's medical and health delivery system, which was held at the university.

Her third wish was to volunteer for VISTA or for the Peace Corps, and in 1994 she accomplished that dream in Santa Clarita.

Although Kathleen's work with the literacy program is very fulfilling, she is only employed part-time. Financial challenges have recently been complicated by her car breaking down. As she admits ruefully, ``I would love to have money coming in so I can continue working with this community. I need to widen my opportunity horizon: Have literacy, will travel.''