Sandy Gabe has worked with seven learners in her five years as a tutor with the adult literacy program at the San Benito County Free Library. Monica Rivera has been working with three learners simultaneously, while Rebecca Salinas has one learner for whom she sees a bright future now that he has mastered the English language.
The three are just a few of the 18 tutors who work with adult English language learners through the adult literacy program, committing to at least an hour a week. Some tutors find themselves offering up more time with their students. The program is in need of more tutors as there is always a waiting list for learners.
Statistics provided by the library staff show19 percent of adults in San Benito County cannot read or write, with 3.4 million Californians without basic literacy skills.
“I always tell my learners I am learning, too,” said Rivera, who said she has discovered a lot about Indian culture from working with one of her students. She’s even spent time researching more about the culture on her own.
The library staff provides training and tutoring materials to volunteers as well as a resource of reading materials to use in the lessons.
Salinas said with one of her students she requested a book that dealt with construction terminology because the man she was working with wanted to increase his vocabulary for a job and she didn’t know all the terms herself.
She said another of her students started out with no English skills and now he is getting an A in English 1 at Gavilan College.
“It’s really dramatic to see the growth,” Salinas said. “He wants to become educated.”
The three tutors said the lessons are tailored to the individual student. They ask what goals the students want to accomplish, such as improving their English skills for a job, to read to their children or even to pass a test to get a driver license.
“I will ask my learner to reconfirm if we are going in the direction she wants to go in,” Gabe said. “I use materials I think are relevant and helpful. I ask her to let me know what other things she wants to read or study.”
Any question can turn into a conversation, such as with one of Rivera’s students who asked about flip flops.
“It’s so simple and they are so much a part of California life,” Rivera said.
While the program is focused on improving English writing and reading skills, the tutors said they often work with learners from foreign countries who also use it as an opportunity to learn about American culture.
Rivera had another student who didn’t know about the Japanese internment camps during World War II so Rivera assigned her a book on the subject. For another student who had an infant at home, she assigned the woman to read stories to her child when the baby turned six months old.
“The program is very goal oriented and it is on a one-to-one basis,” said Wendy Kay, one of the literacy program staff members. “It is important and it is different. One thing we really stress is working on writing skills.”
Gabe said to be a tutor, volunteers don’t need to have too much free time and they don’t have to have a background in teaching.
“One of the reasons people hold back is they don’t think they have the experience,” Gabe said.
Kay said potential tutors just need a willingness to help. She said the staff also takes efforts to match up tutors and learners that may have some similar interests.
Librarian Nora Conte said the program does go beyond literacy in that it creates friendships.
Gabe said one of her former learners was a woman from Japan who before she returned to her native country asked to perform a traditional tea ceremony for Gabe. Gabe invited a few friends over for the ceremony.
“I felt very honored that she wanted to give me that special gift,” Gabe said.
The library also offers the ABC Express, a program that teaches parents of children ages 3-5 how to set the foundation for their children to become life-long readers.
The adult literacy program is funded in part by California State Library Literacy, with a grant providing funds for the ABC Express. Other funding is provided by the Friends of the San Benito County Free Library through fundraising efforts and donations.
For more on becoming a tutor, pick up an application at the San Benito County Free Library or call Wendy Kay or Rosa Garcia at 636-4107, ext. 20 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Donations can be made to the literacy program through the Friends of the San Benito County Free Library.