Alameda's adult literacy program celebrates an anniversary

Alameda's adult literacy program celebrates an anniversary

Janice Worthen
Alameda Reads

Photo courtesy of California State Library Services.

The California State Library’s adult literacy program, California Library Literacy Services, celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, and as part of the celebration, the California State Library has initiated an awareness campaign called “Together, California Reads.” On September 3, Governor Jerry Brown recognized the efforts of the program by proclaiming September Adult Literacy Awareness Month.

Alameda’s own adult literacy program, Alameda Reads, is also gearing up for its anniversary celebration. Since its founding in 1985, Alameda Reads has helped more than 3,000 adults from all over the Bay Area improve their reading and writing skills through personalized one-on-one tutoring sessions, classes, and resources.

In honor of learner and tutor accomplishments, Alameda Reads will hold a celebration from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. September 23 at the Alameda Free Library’s main branch. Both tutors and learners will read selections from their own writing, and Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and City Councilwoman Lena Tam will speak at the event.

The council is expected to sign off on a proclamation honoring the local program’s anniversary during its meeting Tuesday.

The state program estimates that nearly 4.5 million adults in California struggle with low literacy levels that limit personal and professional opportunities. Program coordinator Sue Mark said that many people who come to the program find it hard to talk about their literacy challenges.

“Dealing with reading and writing deficits causes people a lot of emotional duress, and it’s not an easy decision to call our office,” Mark said.

With the help of staff and volunteer tutors, adults who participate in the program work to improve reading and writing skills and reach personal goals such as completing their high school equivalency degree, improving computer skills, reading to their children, helping their children with homework and learning new job skills.

In a report to the state Legislature, the state’s program said California public libraries offered adult literacy programs like Alameda Reads at 558 locations last year with the help of almost 10,700 volunteers. More than 21,000 people took advantage of the services these programs provide, but almost 4,000 adults are still waiting to be assigned a tutor.

Mark, who worked as a teacher for Alameda Reads for five years before becoming coordinator in 2009, said the demand for literacy services is so high that it can sometimes overwhelm the program’s small staff. She said the program serves more than 120 people each year, 65 percent of whom come from Alameda. Another 30 percent come from Oakland, and 5 percent come from other cities in the North Bay.

Mark’s staff consists of her and a part-time program assistant; the tutors and everyone else who helps with the program are volunteers. Mark said that the program has had up to 60 volunteers a year and about 45 tutor-learner pairs at a time, but more tutors are always needed. The program holds a 12-hour training session two to three times a year for prospective tutors, and Mark said there are usually 10 to 15 people who attend each training session.

Sue McLaughlin attended a training session last year. She has worked with two learners since then and met many new friends through the program, and she said the decision to become a tutor was one of the best she has made.

“Both the tutor and the learner have lots to gain from working together. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership,” McLaughlin said.

Joe Brandt, a retired computer scientist, has volunteered for the program for nearly six years and has worked with multiple learners. He said he joined the program because he struggled with reading when he was young, and he wanted to give back to the community. He has had many rewarding experiences with learners, including helping one learner write his autobiography.

Brandt said that the program has shown him that the issue of illiteracy in America is bigger than he realized.

“One of the things that surprised me about the Alameda Reads program and the issue of illiteracy is that four out of five of the students that I have worked with are high school graduates,” he said. “Two of them graduated from Alameda high schools. All of them are native born in this country.”

Mark said she is proud of learners who decide to make a change, and she tries to make the change easier by providing a “team of dedicated volunteer tutors.”

During the training sessions, Mark shows prospective tutors how to help learners open up and gain confidence with reading and writing.

Lynne Dennis, co-leader of Alameda Reads’ book club, is often surprised by learners’ abilities to tackle challenging material, especially for those who do not speak English as their first language. She said about six to eight people attend each book club meeting, and they have been able to read such books as The Paris Wife and The Best American Short Stories 2013.

Dennis served as a copy editor for the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury News before volunteering for Alameda Reads. When she retired, she wanted to find a way to put her writing and editing experience to good use. In time, Mark asked her to help with the book club as well.

Mark has worked to build strong partnerships with organizations like Alameda Adult School in order to make Alameda Reads more visible and accessible in the community. She said outreach can be challenging because those who need the program may not be able to read advertisements.

“I realized that, not only would it be a tremendous boon in our program’s reach to place tutors in adult school classrooms, it would also be an organic way for students in need of additional support to learn about our program,” Mark said. “We refer students to one another, and the teachers appreciate having a tutor in the classroom.”

Mark said Alameda Reads fills an important niche in the community because its services are free, tutors provide one-on-one attention, tutoring sessions can fit easily into most schedules, and learners can keep their literacy level confidential. Learners can also work in group settings by attending GED test preparation, computer, and reading classes at the library or by participating in Alameda Reads’ book club.

Mark said tutors have helped with outreach through the Alameda Reads Leadership Team. The team assists with special events like the Walk for Literacy that happened last September to teach the community more about what Alameda Reads provides.

The team has also helped with Alameda Reads’ “I Believe” book project, which Mark said is based on the This I Believe book series and website. Mark said that tutors and more than 75 percent of learners have contributed a piece of writing about their beliefs and values for the book, and she hopes it will be published by the end of this year. She hopes to have a launch party when the book is finished.

A poster series has been installed at Alameda Free Library’s main branch with excerpts from tutor and learner writing that was generated during the book project.

Alameda Reads is funded primarily by the California State Library, but groups like the Alameda Free Library Foundation and Friends of the Alameda Free Library have provided additional funding to help Alameda Reads purchase laptops, software, and other equipment as well as to provide free books and materials to learners.

Even with this generosity, Mark said it is challenging to serve the needs of so many Bay Area residents with such a small staff, and volunteers continue to be vital to the program.

Anyone interested in becoming a tutor for Alameda Reads can contact the program via e-mail, at alamedareads@alamedaca.gov; or by phone, at 865-2454. Additional information about the program is available on the city’s website.