POSTED ON AUGUST 18, 2010:
Now Read This
Literacy program aims for volunteer tutors, mentors
Tulsa resident Paula Recess said she's never been hesitant to offer her help when she sees a need for it. She's active in her church, her neighborhood association and the NAACP.
"People tease me about being a busybody," she said, laughing.
Even better, she doesn't mind asking for help when she needs it -- learning to read, for instance.
Recess is one of the approximately 200 students enrolled in the Tulsa City-County Library's Ruth G. Hardman Adult Literacy Service program. Her own academic career ended after ninth grade when she became a mother, and since then, Recess has struggled with a variety of health, learning and disability issues.
But none of that stopped her from walking into the library's downtown branch a couple of years ago and asking for help in learning to read. A series of assessments that every student in the program goes through revealed she had vision and hearing problems that made it difficult for her to focus, problems that were quickly addressed.
Still, Recess didn't experience immediate success in the program. She went through a couple of tutors with whom she was unable to bond, a frustrating situation that causes some students to give up and drop out.
Not Recess. She stuck with it and was paired up last year with Michael Conley, a retired firefighter and social worker who was as committed to working with her as she was with him. Now, 12 months after they began working together, Recess has improved two grade levels in her vocabulary skills and three grade levels in her comprehension -- remarkable increases, considering that improvements of one grade level per year are regarded as good progress.
Recess is putting her new skills to good use. She's a student at Tulsa Community College's northeast campus, studying arts and American Sign Language. Upon graduation, she hopes to go to work as an ASL interpreter at her church.
"This is what we want our students to aspire to," said Holly Coats, an adult literacy specialist with the program, nodding toward Recess. "To go to college or get a GED. We ask for tutors who are patient and compassionate. And Michael's got the perfect image of a tutor."
Recess and Conley are two of the stars of a program that is operating under some strain, despite its successes. The literacy service currently has more than 70 adults waiting for a reading tutor, about half of whom as English as Second Language students.
With September serving as Literacy Awareness Month, program officials are making a push to attract new tutors, as well as students. Coats cites figures indicating that 14 percent of adults in Tulsa County read at less than the basic level, while an additional 31 percent read only at the basic level. She said Recess is unusual in that she was so willing to seek help for her inability to read.
"A lot of our students who come in, it takes a lot for them to come here," she said, noting that many illiterate people are too embarrassed to seek help for their problem. The literacy service seeks to ease those concerns by providing confidential, non-judgmental help to those in need in a supportive atmosphere.
"Everything that happens here is between us," Coats said, noting that many students don't even want their family members to know they have a problem.
Recess said she figured out ways throughout the years to keep her problem from becoming obvious, even to those who knew her.
"I've always been called a con artist," she said, smiling. "People say to me, 'You don't appear the way you are.' "
She no longer keeps her problem a secret, singing the praises of the adult literacy service to everyone she knows, including friends she has tried to recruit into the program. Recess said she would be lost without the service, noting she was diagnosed as disabled at 22 and 30, and in her late 40s.
But an unwillingness to sit home and feel sorry for herself led her to seek help from the library -- a place she already had come to regard as a safe haven after taking her son there on a regular basis when he was growing up.
She said it's her relationship with Conley that really has allowed her to blossom in the program.
"I guess I think of him as an uncle or a grandfather," she said, noting that his reliability is one of the things that separate him from her previous tutors. "Michael is so educated, I brag on him all the time ... All my friends want Michael (to tutor them). He's in high demand."
Recess is Conley's first student, and he said the experience has been a memorable one.
"We've had some rough spots, and we've overcome most of those," he said. "I'm sure we'll have some rough spots in the future. But one of the most important things a student and tutor have to do is establish a relationship. Each one needs to understand what the other one wants and needs and is striving for."
Conley said showing honesty, warmth and sincerity are three qualities that are crucial in a tutor.
"Not to just be here for the job, but sincerely want to help and do whatever is necessary for that student to reach their goals," he said.
Conley said Recess' drive to improve herself is what motivates him to help her. He marvels at her determination.
"I know I can't let her down," he said.
The two try to get together for at least one hour a week, two if they can find the time, working on such areas as word study, vocabulary, comprehension, phonics and reading back. The skills she has developed have led Recess to join the program's book club, and now she has a shelf full of books she proudly displays at home, having read and discussed them through the club.
Conley said he became a tutor after retiring last year. He was looking for something constructive to do with his time and had heard the program's then-director, Rebecca Howard, talk about the adult literacy service many times. He decided to give it a try and he hasn't been disappointed in the results.
"It's been more than I expected," he said. "The satisfaction I've gotten from it is tremendous. I can't measure that. It's exactly what I wanted from this point in my life. I can see and feel the good that it's doing, and that makes it worthwhile to me."
Coats stressed that the program is not designed to send every learner to college. Students establish their own goals, and they work with the tutors to achieve those.
"If their goal is to be able to read to their children, that's the most important thing to accomplish," she said. "Maybe they want to get their GED or get a job, or get a better job. Concentrating on what they want to achieve is really important."
Anyone who is 18 years or older and who has graduated from high school is eligible to serve as a tutor. Volunteers are asked to make a one-year commitment, then go through 12 hours of training. After completing their training, they are matched with an adult learner to provide one-on-one training once or twice a week.
The registration deadline for basic literacy tutor training is Sept. 13, with training sessions scheduled for Sept. 14, 16, 21 and 23 from 5:45pm-8:45pm at the Central Library at 4th St. and Denver Ave. The registration deadline for ESL literacy tutor training is Sept. 20, with training sessions scheduled for 10am-4pm Sept. 25 and 1-4pm Oct. 2 at the Helmerich Library, 5131 E. 91st St. Tutors are required to complete all sessions of the chosen workshop.
To register for a workshop, call (918) 549-7400 or visit tulsalibrary.org/literacy.
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