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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 29, 2008

Light the lamp of literacy at your library

Liz Allen recently took a group of refugees from Burma to Albany’s Tulip Fest. “We had just learned the cyclone Nargis had hit their country. I asked if they had friends or family who were hurt,” recalled Allen.

They said, “We don’t know. We haven’t been in communication.”

The refugees were from the state of Karen and had been in camps for years on the border of Thailand, she said. “They had been chased out of their homes, singled out for discrimination by the government,” said Allen.

Now they are living in our midst. And Allen, through her work as program director for Literacy Volunteers — Mohawk/Hudson Inc., is helping them.

The not-for-profit organization, which has served Albany and Schenectady counties for 40 years, teaches reading, writing, and speaking skills to adults.

“One out of every five adults in the Capital Region reads at or below the fifth-grade level,” said Allen.

Three-quarters of the people served by Literacy Volunteers are immigrants and refugees. “Immigrants often come to us more readily because there’s a stigma attached when you’re a native speaker,” she said of not being able to read.

Literacy Volunteers is partnering with the Guilderland Public Library to teach English to immigrants. The suburban library is one of 34 nationwide to receive a one-time $5,000 grant from Dollar General, a Tennessee-based small-box discount retailer with stores in 35 states.

One of the store’s founders had only a third-grade education, according to the company, so it promotes literacy efforts and has named this grant “The American Dream Starts @ Your Library.” It is being made through the American Library Association. The association’s literacy officer, Dale Lipschultz, told us, “The only string attached is the library has to be within 20 miles of a Dollar General store.”

Lipschultz has a sense of personal mission in public libraries promoting literacy. “My grandparents came here in 1912,” she said, explaining they left Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. “They were children and went to the library to learn to read...The library is one institution that has a connection with the whole community…Libraries continue to be challenged by the influx of immigrants, now in non-traditional areas.”

Her views are echoed in a report on libraries by the United States Citizen and Immigration Services.

“The tradition may be traced back to Andrew Carnegie’s support for public libraries as a place for immigrant self-education, enlightenment, and the study of democracy and English,” it says. “This role is especially relevant today as the immigrant population in the United States has grown to a record 33.5 million people, representing approximately 12 percent of the United States population. New immigrants are settling outside the traditional gateway cities where there are fewer resources to facilitate interaction…Thus, there is an even greater role for public libraries in welcoming and educating immigrants.”

In Guilderland, the Asian population has recently increased nearly 200 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Over the last five years, the library has worked with Literacy Volunteers to provide English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes.

“Some evenings, I feel like it’s a mini U.N. Every table has a face of a different country,” said Maria Buhl, Adult Services librarian, who wrote the grant application. “Guilderland is a center for many people from different countries.”

Buhl went on, “Libraries are seen by so many people as a safe and reliable place for information, for meeting, for getting their questions answered in a nonjudgmental way… For those coming to this country, libraries are a first line of defense. They walk in and say, the best they can, ‘I want to get a library card.’”

She attributes the high number of immigrants in Guilderland — largely from South Korea and China but also many from Russia — to several factors, including a lot of rental properties in town, proximity to the university, and a great school district. Many of the Guilderland immigrants are university students or teachers and their families. While their children can learn English in the public schools, the spouses are often isolated, unable to even drive because they can’t read English.

Buhl said the $5,000 in grant money will be used to “re-tool the tutor training model, focusing on work-place and health literacy.” Volunteer tutors will help immigrants learn skills like reading classified ads, interviewing for jobs, reading medicine labels, and learning to set up doctors’ appointments and ask medical questions.

Seventy-five tutors were trained early in the century and the goal is to train 20 new tutors, said Buhl.

Tell your readers, Buhl said, if they want to be part of the American Dream to call Literacy Volunteers at 452-3382. We hope they do. Anyone who is at least 21 with a high-school education can volunteer. No teaching experience is needed. No knowledge of a foreign language is needed.

Tutors will be trained with techniques that use real-life objects and situations. “We teach to their interests and goals,” said Allen. A one-year commitment is required, but many tutors stay on for years because they find the work so satisfying.

Allen is a case in point. She speaks passionately about her work. “We’re cultural ambassadors,” she said. “In the beginning, we are their lifeline. But our whole purpose is to make them independent. They go off and do amazing things.”

In 2002, Allen, then an editor, volunteered to tutor a woman from Albania who spoke no English. She has since become an American citizen, bought a house, is in college studying to be a radiology technician, is raising her children, and has brought her parents here.

The experience changed Allen’s life as well. She left her former career and went back to school to get a degree in teaching English, leading to her current job.

“You go in thinking, ‘I want to help someone.’ You come out having your own life enriched,” said Allen.

We commend the Guilderland Public Library and the Literacy Volunteers for fulfilling a need in our community and we urge our readers to join the ranks of the cultural ambassadors. Strong, diverse threads make a richer American fabric.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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