Hooked on helping others learn to read Library tutoring program also assists those not fluent in English
Desert Sun: Feb 18, 2006 byK Kaufmann
Joan Robinson never wanted to be a teacher.
But, the Cathedral City resident said, five years ago, a friend suggested she become a volunteer tutor for the Riverside County Library Adult Literacy Program, and she was hooked.
Her first student was a dyslexic adult who "wanted to read stories to his children," she recalled. "We took it slowly, and he was able to do that."
"I feel like in some tiny way I'm helping people," Robinson said. "Our program here is not only teaching people to read but trying to assist them in speaking English correctly."
California has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the country, more than 10 percent, according to 2004 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. And in the Coachella Valley, Violeta Torres, area supervisor for the Riverside County program, said her classes for non-English speakers are packed.
"In Desert Hot Springs, we're going to start a waiting list," she said.
Torres estimated her English classes and one-on-one tutoring program are serving about 140 students - 75 percent non-English speakers and 25 percent adults who can't read or write.
"It's a lot of work, but it is definitely satisfying," said Torres, who was a teacher in Texas before moving to the valley. "A lot of people come in with literacy problems, and we end up helping them with different things. It seems like literacy and social services," Torres said.
Opening new doors
About 16 students turned out for a recent Wednesday night class at the Cathedral City Public Library, where they spent two hours mastering basic English vocabulary and conversation skills.
Among them was Guillermina Macias of Cathedral City, a hotel housekeeper originally from Mexico who is learning English so she can eventually become a U.S. citizen. "I need to learn to converse," she said, with Torres interpreting, "for my job and for my kids."
Repeating words and phrases over and over, Macias and the rest of the group learned the difference between words like "moon" and "moan" and used hand mirrors to watch their own teeth and tongues while forming unfamiliar sounds, such as the "th" combination in words like "three" and "thumb"
"Stick out your tongue," Torres said, providing a tip on how to make the sound. "It'll happen so fast, no one will notice."
Like Macias, most of the students around the table are highly motivated, Torres said. "Many of our volunteers are (encouraging) our students so they're pursuing something much higher," she said.
Minerva Juarez, another Mexican immigrant who works as a housekeeper, would like a better job. "More than anything I need it (English) for work," she said, again with Torres interpreting. "When they ask if I know English, I say, a little."
She said she communicates with supervisors on the job through small phrases and gestures.
Anxious to learn
Having students who are eager to learn is a big draw for Nita Eklund of La Quinta, another volunteer tutor. But, she said, "you need patience, especially with people who are really trying. You have to get to know the students and the pace they can learn."
Eklund began as a volunteer tutor in Los Angeles about 12 years ago, she said, and signed up with Riverside when she moved to the valley four years ago.
The rewards come in good feelings, she said, "especially when I have a student who I think is really eager and advancing in their employment.
"(Learning English) enables them to cope with society today," she said. "They have to and they need to, to advance."
The Coachella Valley office of the Riverside County Library Adult Literacy Program is always looking for volunteer tutors and teachers for its English classes. No prior teaching experience is required, said Violeta Torres, the area supervisor. Volunteer tutors have to commit to meeting with a student for at least one one-hour session a week, though many do two, she said. Seasonal tutors, available for three or six months, are welcome.
For more information, call 342-2580.Volunteers are also needed for adult literacy programs at the Palm Springs Public Library. For information, call 322-8369.