After 30 years, Sonoma County Library’s adult literacy program marks milestone

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Sonoma County Library Adult Literacy program

30th anniversary celebration, 5 p.m. Sept. 24 at the central library in Santa Rosa

Volunteer orientation

6 to 8 p.m., Oct. 5 at central library

10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at the central library

Sign up tutor coordinator, Melissa Trunick 707-545-0831, ext. 1579 or email literacy@sonoma.lib.ca.us.

Jeffrey George was 7 and a middle child among 11 siblings when his mother abandoned their family in their home city Port of Spain, capital of the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

His father was imprisoned two years later. When he was 12, with only his grandmother and older siblings left for support, he dropped out of school and “hustled,” catching fish, running a fruit stand and dancing on the streets for change.

He left his English- and creole-speaking country at 18 and worked as a musician, traveling around the world. But he couldn’t read or write.

In restaurants, he’d wait for friends to order and follow their lead, unable to make sense of the words on a menu. When asking for directions, he would use landmarks and businesses to navigate instead of street signs.

“I was ashamed,” he said.

For 30 years, a popular program run through the Sonoma County Library has been working to bridge the literacy gap for adults who have struggled to get by without a basic knowledge of how to write and read English. George entered the program two years ago.

In a world evermore reliant on instant communication over a wide array of digital platforms, literacy remains one of the key determining factors of economic wellbeing, both on a individual and national scale, studies show.

The nearly 20 percent of Americans who fall below basic levels of reading comprehension are more at risk of “academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime,” according to the Department of Justice.

For Americans who can read and write, the outlook is much brighter, enabling basic independence as an adult, access to higher education, a fruitful career, an ability to pass on knowledge to children, and, experts say, a higher quality of life.

Over that time, the library’s program — Adult Literacy — has served thousands of county residents who engage one-on-one with tutors and take part in classes — at elementary schools, a day labor center and at the county’s two jail facilities. Most participants are between the ages of 30 and 49, many with school-age children and jobs. Their goals include securing U.S. citizenship, a driver’s license or the ability to carry out a wide range of life’s daily tasks, from reading a prescription drug label to understanding a bus schedule or scanning the day’s news.

Many enroll after experiencing some significant shift in their life — a child’s birth or a loved one’s death — said Alisa Adams, who runs the library’s adult literacy program. This year, it has offered tutoring and classroom instruction to more than 400 students.

Adams said many new students come in saying, “‘I’ve lived with this, but it’s not OK now that I have kids. My children are coming home with homework questions, and I want to help them.”

She described illiteracy as profoundly isolating, especially for adults.

“It really takes a lot of courage to come in and say I don’t want to keep this a secret anymore,” she said.

For George, now 40 and a father of four in Santa Rosa, it was the realization he may not be able to provide for his growing family. He signed up for the free tutoring at the library system’s main branch in downtown Santa Rosa.

Sonoma County Library Adult Literacy program

30th anniversary celebration, 5 p.m. Sept. 24 at the central library in Santa Rosa

Volunteer orientation

6 to 8 p.m., Oct. 5 at central library

10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at the central library

Sign up tutor coordinator, Melissa Trunick 707-545-0831, ext. 1579 or email literacy@sonoma.lib.ca.us.

“There was nothing that could stop me,” he said. “I’m on a mission to help my family and make my family prosper.”

When adults enter the local program, many set down practical goals. They want to be able to fill out government paperwork, respond to forms from their child’s school or set up their own business.

Some goals are more profound.

“I had one person who was over 50,” Adams said. “His goal was to read a book before he dies.”

The library’s program is the most extensive of several that work to help illiterate adults in Sonoma County. Its mainstay is the one-on-one tutoring, where students meet with volunteer instructors about once a week for two hours, usually in a library branch, but the lessons can happen anywhere.

The department also runs three satellite programs: English as a second language classes at the Graton Day Labor Center; evening civics classes for English learners at Luther Burbank Elementary School and Brook Hill Elementary School in Santa Rosa; and classes at both the main jail site in Santa Rosa and the north county facility near the county airport.

This year, for the first time, classes at the main jail were expanded beyond basic grammar and spelling to include reading comprehension and literature.

Readings included poetry, flash fiction — stories that include a narrative arc in two pages — and a novel: John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl.”

Tatiana Harrison, the part-time Elsie Allen High School teacher who runs the main jail classes, said she expanded the curriculum because her students were ready to move beyond standard exercises.

She started with poetry, including a piece called “Questions for my Dad,” written by a daughter to her jailed father and posed as a series of questions to him as a man absent from her life. She’s taught the same poem in high school, but it hit home in a different way for the inmates.

“In high school, a lot of them were thinking of their own parents — if not in prison, then absent for parts of their past,” Harrison said. “When I shared it with the classes at the jail, they said, ‘How can you do this to us? Most of us have kids who could write this.’

“But I was so proud of them because even though it was such an impactful thing, they were able to confront it in a really powerful way. It’s really hard to deal with that kind of guilt.”

The Adult Literacy program began in 1986, and is supported by $154,000 in library, state and federal funding, as well as through donations and its contract with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

The program has been expanded over the years, incorporating new classes at the day labor center and the jail in the past decade. Adams voiced hope the program would continue to grow in the years to come. It is still highly reliant on volunteers, who undergo training through the library.

Before taking part in the literacy program, George had never read a book in his life. His one-on-one tutoring with instructor Laura Owens focused on learning the alphabet, reading, writing and spelling. By May 2015, he’d come far enough that other practical goals were in his grasp.

He was able to read and pass his driver’s license test. He secured a business license and opened George Family Landscaping.

Now he spends nights reading to his children, and in his spare time keeps up with the news online and in magazines.

George was honored by the state for his achievements in adult learning. This fall, he and Owens will travel to San Diego for a conference where they’ll be one of two student-tutor pairs to receive an award from the state’s Outreach and Technical Assistance Network.

“Reading and writing are the basic ingredients of a human being’s life,” George said. “I finally got my independence and I’m able to do something with my life and be proud of myself.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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