Valencia County Literacy Council in need of tutoring volunteers

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Rosa, one of eight children, was born in the United States. As a girl, her family travelled back and forth across the border with Mexico to find work.

Like her parents, she toiled in the fields. The itinerant farm work was, by any measure, hard, dirty and at times, dangerous.

Growing up, she attended lots of different schools. And although she was always promoted, she never learned to read.

As a mother, Rosa (not her real name) always wished she could read to her children. She couldn't. Now that she's a grandmother, she would love to be able to read to her grandchildren.

At some point, that wish became a goal. Rosa turned to the Valencia County Literacy Council for help.

Bob Bishop, the council's volunteer tutoring coordinator, says the program is helping, but at the same time it isn't easy for Rosa. Her husband is supportive, but he works and is often tired.

Finding transportation to tutoring sessions can be a problem, and Rosa has housekeeping chores to attend to and grandchildren to care for.

"But she really wants to read," Bishop says. "She really does. She's working really hard and is making progress."

Rosa's story is but one of many at the Valencia County Literacy Council, headquartered at the University of New Mexico-Valencia County campus.

Ramón's is another. He was 22 when he sought the agency's help. Like Rosa, he had worked on both sides of the border. It had been a tough life and he was reluctant to talk about it.

He knew, however, that he wanted to obtain his GED.

"How?" was the big question; Ramón (again, an assumed name) didn't know the English meaning of many of the words used in the high school equivalency test.

Jill Oglesby, the council's director, said Ramón was able to understand many of the longer Latin-origin English words because they are often similar — even identical — to their Spanish equivalents.

She advised him to work on building his vocabulary, which, she told him, is like a treasure chest that needs to be filled. It was a metaphor Ramón immediately and completely grasped and he began to open up with "truly amazing stories," Oglesby said.

One day he asked about the late Christopher Reeve, the movie actor who played Superman before an equestrian accident left him a quadriplegic.

Oglesby couldn't tell Ramón much, so they went online to research the fallen hero. Ramón was fascinated; he had found a topic for learning that he could really get into.

But the experience wasn't beneficial to him alone.

"I, too, learned an awful lot that day," Oglesby said.

After six months or so, he was able to enroll and participate in GED classes.

All council tutors are certified by ProLiteracy America to help adults learn to read and non-English speakers learn English. The nonprofit agency also offers assistance in citizenship, basic math and — as in Ramón's case — GED preparation. The tutors work in intimate one-to-one and small group situations in public venues, such as libraries, which allow a student to learn at his or her own pace. Confidentiality is assured.

Last year the council helped 191 adults, including 64 in the agency's "basic literacy" category. The others were ESL adults — 16 years or older and not enrolled in high school.

The clients' goals are varied. Like Ramón, many are seeking a GED. Others want to go to college or need to read for a job.

Rosa is one of many who yearn to read to their children or grandchildren. Some need to be literate to obtain a driver's license.

"Whatever the student's goal, that's what we work on," Oglesby said.

Right now the council is looking for a few good tutors. Last year, it utilized the services of 39 volunteer tutors. This year, the number is down slightly, hence the need.

Training dates are scheduled for Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. Those interested in signing up or want more information should call Bishop at 925-8935. No prior teaching or tutoring experience is required.

Other volunteers work on the agency's board of directors, raise money or tackle administrative tasks. The council's budget last year was $110,000 — not much at all when the rewards of literacy are factored into the picture.

"It would be better if it were $150,000," Oglesby said, shrugging her shoulders. "The thing we need most is staff time."

Oglesby is originally from Albuquerque, but has lived in Los Lunas for 17 years. She holds a master's degree in English from the University of Florida and taught adult literacy and GED courses before taking over the helm at the council.

Her motivation may stem in part from the memory that her maternal grandparents only attended school up to the fourth and seventh grades. There were no second chances.

Bishop is a retired classical music radio station personality from Los Angeles.

The Valencia County Literacy Council got started in 1987 when "Robert," an adult with a brain injury, decided he wanted to obtain a GED.

The agency's stated mission is "to enable adults to achieve personal goals and very young children to achieve pre-literacy skills through literacy services provided to families free of charge."

Its motto? "With Literacy and Justice for All."

An estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of adults in the county either speak no or limited English.

The agency does not tutor children under 16 years old. It does, however, run an "escuelita" for children of students enrolled in UNM-Valencia's English and GED in Español classes in El Cerro Mission.

The council also employs volunteer book readers and distributes books at First Choice and Department of Health WIC clinics in Valencia County.