From one-on-one tutoring to family reading programs and more, the Adult Literacy League and its volunteers are committed to building a more literate community
What if you were unable to read and understand the instructions on a job application, hindering your chances of gainful employment? What if you had trouble reading a simple street sign or a product label, crippling your ability to be self-sufficient? What if you could not read your child a bedtime story, robbing you of a precious moment with your son or daughter?
For many residents of Central Florida, this is a difficult and frustrating reality. In fact, one in five adults in the region read at or below a fifth-grade level. And, in many cases, when adult parents struggle with low literacy skills, so do their children.
Recognizing the need for adult education in the community more than 50 years ago, the Adult Literacy League was founded in 1968 by a group of volunteers with just 75 adult students. Today, the League serves Seminole, Orange, and Osceola counties and provides both adult and family literacy services to more than 3,000 adult learners and more than 1,000 children.
The League’s incredible staff and hundreds of volunteers have helped thousands of people by offering services such as Adult Basic Education (ABE) and English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). The League also features classes in reading, writing, math, and computer skills along with GED preparation, one-on-one tutoring, and family reading programs. A cross section of the League’s student population reveals people of diverse backgrounds, like Cherishma, a native English speaker who is learning math to further her education, and Freynaldo, a Venezuelan native and lawyer who came to the United States in 2016 not knowing how to speak English.
“Every day, I consider myself lucky to witness learning in action,” says Gina Solomon, the League’s executive director. “I see our volunteer tutors light a spark in their students, and our classroom volunteers generate excitement about language, math, and other topics. There’s nothing as gratifying as attending a student’s U.S. citizenship swearing-in ceremony or sitting with a student while she checks her email and learns she’s passed the GED exam. There’s something to celebrate here nearly every day.”
Gina, who grew up in Seminole County, first started at the League as a volunteer tutor in 1999 before serving in the Peace Corps for two years in Kyrgyzstan as a teacher and community organizer. In 2005, Gina joined the League full-time and has served in roles including program director, development officer, and most recently executive director.
“I fell in love with the organization’s mission,” she says. “Looking back, I realize that my experience in the Peace Corps paralleled what was happening right here in Central Florida. I saw the difference that education made in the lives of the kids I was teaching. Learning English opened up a door to a different and better future for them. The same is true for the adults in the League. They are smart, capable, and eager to be part of society, but a major issue standing in their way is being proficient in English.”
“The entire team at the Adult Literacy League and all the volunteers do such good work,” adds Longwood resident and board treasurer Deirdre Fortune. “The passion they have is second to none. This organization has helped so many people turn their lives around.”
The League offers volunteer-led programs at its Orlando-based literacy center and at partner locations throughout the tri-county area, including at the Seminole County Public Libraries. With more than 50 weekly drop-in classes available, an average of 1,300 adults are helped each week.
“The classes give students a place to start right away,” explains Gina. “If someone is waiting to be matched with a tutor for one-on-one help, they can begin attending classes while we find the right match.”
Volunteer tutors are not necessarily professional teachers but more often come from various backgrounds. They are provided with nationally-accredited curricula and lesson plans and typically meet with their students once a week to teach reading, writing, and English literacy skills. The tutors also keep their own skills sharp through continuing education offered by the League on a regular basis and have access to a wealth of resources like the League’s Tutor Support Committee.
The League serves its students who are parents and grandparents through two family literacy programs: Read to Me! and Read to My Baby! book clubs for children up through age five.
Once registered in the programs, a family receives books, learning materials, and accompanying activities by mail.
“The idea is to help build a home library of up to 35 books a year,” says Gina. “We want our students to engage with their kids and enable them to be the first teacher in their child’s life.”
This year, the League is looking forward to moving into a bigger and better location in Orlando while expanding its partnerships with early local learning centers and at-risk centers.
“Everything we do is helping us to better serve our community,” says Gina. “We are excited for a new year and to continue our vision to build a more literate society.”
Meet Volunteer Paul Stewart
As a young boy growing up in a low-income housing project in Brooklyn, New York, Lake Mary resident Paul Stewart discovered the power of learning early on.
“When my aunt finished teaching kindergarten, she’d come to my house, and she and mom would take me to the public library in Brooklyn and read to me,” Paul recalls. “My mother’s greatest accomplishment is that she helped me get my library card. Reading was my ticket out of the ghetto. It opened up a lot of doors. That’s why I have the greatest respect for anyone who shows up to my ESOL class. They’re taking the time to make their lives better. Part of the key to that is reading and writing – the basics. It’s hard work. Some of these people are professionals in their home country and have to start all over. But I always say you have to believe that tomorrow will be better than today, so keep at it.”
As a kid, Paul also had a stutter and a lisp and had to work with his teachers and a speech therapist.
“That’s another reason why I’m so energized to help my students learn the right way with pronunciation to speak properly,” says Paul. “English is a tough language, and there are so many exceptions to the rules, too.”
Paul, a retired CPA and business owner, became a volunteer more than five years ago. One of his very first students, with a little guidance and encouragement, decided to follow in Paul’s footsteps, eventually pursuing a career in accounting.
“He invited me to his graduation, and I was so touched by that,” says Paul. “I’m so humbled by the responsibility I have as a tutor.”
Paul now teaches ESOL classes at the Lake Mary Library and also tutors two students individually, one from Brazil and another from Haiti. Many of Paul’s students have also become his friends over the years.
“It’s very important for everyone to have a purpose in life, and this is now mine – helping others help themselves,” says Paul. “In my experience, people went out of their way to help me. It’s a lesson I’ve learned. The more you give, the more you get.”
Meet Volunteer Madelda Thompson
When Winter Springs resident and retired teacher Madelda Thompson started as a volunteer tutor 10 years ago, her first student was a woman from Afghanistan who wanted to learn how to read. They began the patient work of learning basic letter sounds and continued to improve over a seven-year period.
“What I love about teaching adults is that they are able to bring home what they learn to their family, and everybody gets to benefit,” says Madelda. “My first student was eventually able to read her grandchildren’s report cards. She also became a genuine friend of mine. Over the years, this work has enriched my life more than I can even explain. I’ve gained so many friendships and learned new teaching techniques. It’s given me a great opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is help others.”
Madelda has experienced it all. She has helped those learning English for the first time, worked with international students and professors honing their language and comprehension skills on a higher level, helped adult students working towards a GED, and she has served as a mentor to many, even accompanying parents to parent-teacher conferences for support. She’s attended students’ birthday parties and special occasions and received many thoughtful gifts from her students.
Over the last two years, Madelda has also been teaching ESOL classes centered around American culture at the Oviedo Library, in addition to keeping a handful of one-on-one tutoring students. Her students come from all over the world including countries like Ukraine, Egypt, Lebanon, Russia, South Korea, and Sudan.
Outside of the League, Madelda teaches ESOL classes at her church in Oviedo and is the vice chair of the Literacy Promotion Committee of Florida State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
“I enjoy working with different people and getting to learn about them,” she says. “They’re working really hard to improve themselves. It touches my heart that the League exists to help people like this. It’s a treasure in our community. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t volunteer. If I were in another country, I would really appreciate someone doing this for me.”
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