Sunday, July 31, 2005

Ventura County Library

Literacy gives adult a chance at a life that she'd never had
Ventura County Star: July 1, 2005 by C Cason

Anne Frank spent years in the darkness. The windows of the Amsterdam attic where her family and friends hid from the Nazis were blacked out so passers-by would see no sign of the desperate existence within.

But when fear and depression closed in on the Jewish teen-ager, she would peer out a shattered skylight and hope for a better day, a better world and a better Anne.

Anne chronicled the days in hiding in her now-famous diary, which was published after she died in a Nazi concentration camp a few weeks before it was liberated by Allied forces in March 1945.

Lucy Newman also spent years in darkness. It was darkness imposed on her by a society that did not value her as a person.

Born in rural Mexico in 1958, she was put to work in the fields at age 6. Her father did not believe in sending daughters to school.

To escape his iron rule, she came to Oxnard to take a job as a baby sitter at age 21.

Unable to read or even write her own name in her native Spanish, she had no way to stay in touch with her mother.

"I was angry at myself because I couldn't do things like other people; I felt handicapped," she told me as we chatted recently under a pepper tree at Saticoy School in Ventura.

Soon after coming to the United States, she married a man who forbid her to go to night school to learn to read.

When Newman became a Jehovah's Witness, though, a volunteer taught her a little written Spanish using Bible stories. At least, it was a beginning.

Eventually, her marriage ended, and Newman, by then the mother of two, took a job in maintenance at Edison.

There she met her current husband, James Newman.

She spoke no English. He spoke no Spanish. A pocket Spanish-English dictionary got them over the rough patches.

Thrown into situations with her new husband's English-speaking family, Newman was so determined to learn their language she listened by the hour to English radio stations.

About 10 years ago, her husband contacted the Ventura County Adult Literacy Program to secure a tutor for his wife.

Lucy Newman worked hard during the one-on-one sessions -- this time with the encouragement of her spouse.

"You've got to read, Lucy," her husband told her when she brought home a container of sour cream instead of cottage cheese. Before literacy, she was forced to memorize the appearance of food containers. And mistakes were inevitable.

"I was like a baby learning to walk," she recalled. "I would take a step, tremble and then fall. And get back up again."

But then something happened that slowed her progress to a crawl.

In 1994, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She suffered severe side effects from the chemotherapy, including memory loss. Much of the written English she learned seemed to evaporate.

About the time she had licked the cancer, she discovered to her amazement she was pregnant. She gave birth to a healthy girl, now 9-year-old Janelle.

There were setbacks but also milestones. Newman became a U.S. citizen eight years ago after passing the written test in English.

Patience is a good quality for a driver in Southern California, and Newman has plenty. It took her four hours to complete her written driver's exam.

Every Wednesday these days, she and her volunteer tutor, Neill Robinson, huddle in a classroom at Saticoy School.

Lucy keeps the eraser end of the pencil poised to scratch out the slightest mistake.

She seems terrified to write down anything she finds stupid. If only I had the same good sense.

But a panel of judges found nothing stupid in one of Newman's recent essays.

In April, she was named one of 16 finalists in the California Writer to Writer challenge -- an essay contest for literacy students.

She wrote an open letter to Anne Frank, after sailing through her diary.

"The most important thing I learned from your story," she wrote, "is that to survive a difficult situation it's important to never give up hope.

"I think that you were very brave while being so young. You made me see things differently. Thank you, Anne. You changed my life."

Before reading "Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl," Newman had never known about the Jewish Holocaust -- a chapter of history most of us learn about in school.

Now, she is determined to make up for all lost time. She is working toward computer literacy as well as English literacy at Ventura Adult School. She eventually hopes to earn a high school equivalency diploma and to attend community college.

"Now I can do this. My days of bottles and diapers are over," she said.

After years in darkness, Lucy Newman sees daylight. And you better believe she's going for it.

-- To find out more about free, one-on-one tutoring through the Reading Program for Adults, call 641-4484.

Friday, July 8, 2005

Corona Public Library

Literacy as a tool: Library director finds niche in helping folks
Press Enterprise: July 1, 2005 by Jerry Soifer

Steve Armstrong, a former businessman-turned-librarian, knows about transformations. Armstrong has been a record-store assistant manager, a paint company accountant and a hospital accountant.

Then Armstrong took an interest in literacy, earning a bachelor's degree from the University of La Verne in 1990 and a master's degree two years later. Now, at 47, he's the director of special services for Corona Public Library. He oversees the literacy program, community liaison, outreach office, the heritage room and the library foundation.

He lives in Rancho Cucamonga with his two golden retrievers. "He's really found his niche," said John Zickefoose, Corona's community liaison at the library. "People think of libraries as books. We're far more than that. We're taking care of people. He's really good at that."

On July 16, Armstrong will oversee the transformation of the library into a variety of settings from Agatha Christie's 1934 mystery novel, "Murder on the Orient Express," as part of a fundraising event.

The children's room will become Istanbul, Turkey, where food such as spicy shrimp skewers will be served. The teen area will become Milan, Italy, with appropriate food. The periodicals section will become the Serbian capital of Belgrade with shepherd's bread on the menu.

The community room will take on a Paris theme with mini-cream puffs covered with chocolate sauce being served. Children from the Christian Arts Theater are scheduled to sing and dance.

The event is the first major fundraiser for the library's foundation in its 20-year history, Armstrong said.

Inspired To Help

In 1987, Armstrong saw the made-for-television movie "Bluffing It" starring Dennis Weaver, who kept his inability to read or write a secret. The movie inspired Armstrong to volunteer as a tutor at the Los Angeles County Public Library in La Verne. There he met Irish immigrant William Heeney, a construction worker who never finished school in his native Dublin.

Heeney said in a phone interview that he would often get lost in Southern California because he could not read a map. Heeney, who lives in Alta Loma, also saw the movie, which inspired him to enroll in the Mount San Antonio College literacy program. There he was placed in a class with young people, where he felt out of place.

Heeney, now 43, sought help at the library in La Verne where he met Armstrong. They worked together for five years. "Steve is like a brother to me," said Heeney. "He's one of the best people I've ever met. He did so much for me. I will be forever grateful to the man."

Heeney eventually became a construction foreman. He said he lives in a different world than before. Armstrong said Heeney did a lot for him, inspiring him to go back to college and earn a degree.

Before meeting Heeney, Armstrong preferred work to study. "I liked being self-sufficient, making money, being independent," he said .

Heeney convinced Armstrong he belonged in a library. At the time, Armstrong wasn't happy with his work at a rehabilitation hospital in Pomona. "I was doing a lot of collection work," said Armstrong. "I wanted to help people, not collect money from them."

Armstrong attended Citrus College in Azusa off and on for 13 years before enrolling at the University of La Verne.
He went to work at the Glendora library in 1993 and rose to the position of development and educational services director. Heeney said of Armstrong, "He turned me around more than I turned his life around."