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    With English tutors' help, doors open


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 1, 2001

    PALM HARBOR -- In movies, characters who are adults before they master English often must overcome great embarrassment before learning how to decode letters into recognizable words.

    The reality is a little different in the Palm Harbor Adult Literacy Services program.

    Most of the students in the program at the Palm Harbor Library already know how to read, and many have university degrees in other languages. Foreign-born residents make up 90 percent of the students in the program.

    They wait months to take the free English tutoring. Some hope to move out of minimum-wage jobs. Others want to secure their lives here so they don't have to return to homelands where their wealth puts their children at risk of being kidnapped.

    The rewards for the tutors are also varied.

    Tutoring can mean "mountaintop experiences," said volunteer Gene Schwilck.

    The former president of the Danforth Foundation in St. Louis, which gives grants to colleges, Schwilck joined the literacy program when he retired 11 years ago. He now tutors the tutors.

    During a two-day training session for new recruits in May, he told of a 25-year-old Turkish student who was afraid to read English to his toddler son.

    Unbeknownst to his student, Schwilck worked words from a storybook into their lessons. Later, Schwilck gave the book to his student, who gained confidence when he saw words in it he knew.

    The student had read to this son the next time Schwilck saw him.

    Foreign-born students "just need help, mostly in pronunciation and grammar . . . (and in) choosing right words and tenses," said Bob Stevens, a retired publicity and advertising executive. Stevens serves as publicity director for the program's parent organization, the Palm Harbor Library Literacy Council, which is part of the Palm Harbor Friends of the Library.

    Stevens' current student, 43-year-old Ukrainian computer programmer Sergey Karpenko, said Stevens scared him at first. He thought Stevens might drop him if he didn't catch on quickly enough.

    "He's very, very . . . a person who likes English," Karpenko said.

    After tutoring for four years, Stevens said he only wants to work with students who pay attention. That is why he likes working with educated immigrants, whom he finds highly motivated.

    He enjoys grooming them to fit into American society.

    "I always tell them, 'I'm going to make you sound like an American boy,' " Stevens said.

    Volunteer Vida James, who is the council's co-coordinator, wants to help those from this country who have made it to adulthood without being able to read well, if at all.

    The former owner of a Palm Harbor auto parts store, James joined four years ago when she discovered that a customer couldn't read. He is successful, and, like many of the illiterate, masks his deficiency well.

    So far, James has worked mostly with foreign-born students and hasn't approached the man. But she believes tutoring could "help him in his job as far as promotions" are concerned and could relieve his wife of some responsibility, such as paying bills. James also envisions her friend one day "reading to his grandchildren."

    James said the literacy program has a problem, though: not enough tutors.

    For every new person who shows an interest in tutoring, there are five prospective students on a library waiting list. The council wants to get the word out that tutoring is a "very satisfying thing to do," Stevens said.

    Tutors spend about an hour and a half twice a week with a student, in settings of their choosing. In April, the library carved out a nook for the literacy tutors, but some like to meet with students in their homes over coffee. Schwilck once had a student so eager, he arrived for 6 a.m. sessions.

    Tutors should count on preparation and drive time. Beyond that, the biggest investment of time is training.

    Tutors meet for a two-hour orientation session, followed by two six-hour training days. They also have several meetings as a group during the year.

    They pay a $21 training fee, which is returned after one year except for the annual $5 Friends of the Library dues. Tutors should expect to stick with their students for two years on average and are encouraged to take them on outings to test their skills.

    Schwilck's wife and a student's wife went on an expedition trying on clothes because clothing sizes differ overseas, he said. Some tutors get so involved, they take their charges out to celebrate finishing the program. Likewise, the tutors are feted with exotic homemade foods.

    Tutors phone in their tutoring time to the council's library office for records kept by Laubach Literacy International, which developed the tutoring materials. Frank Laubach was a missionary who discovered in the Philippines 70 years ago that, using a grid of letters and symbols, he could teach natives a language even if he didn't know theirs.

    What is more, the learners could then teach others, giving rise to the Laubach motto, "Each one teach one." Tutors need no former teacher training, but become certified to tutor in any Laubach program, including at the Dunedin and St. Petersburg libraries.

    Literacy program stories can be both heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Some students left fortunes behind in their native lands and work the first job they can get to start climbing the job ladder and learn the language and American ways, Schwilck said.

    He told of a Latino woman who has been promoted from minimum wage to a $7-an-hour job at McDonald's due to her newfound proficiency in English. She plans to go on to be a nurse.

    Another former student of the literacy program recently joined the Palm Harbor Library circulation desk.

    Schwilck said two new students have immigrated here because their children might have been kidnapped if they had stayed in Colombia. The future of one hangs, in part, on his mastery of English.

    An engineer, he must start a company here that employs at least five people within five years, according to an agreement his lawyer worked out with immigration officials, Schwilck said.

    Tutors in a recent training class said they joined for reasons ranging from helping others to learning more about other cultures. They range in age from 38 to 78, including at least one recent widow.

    "We have more than 50 tutors who provide one-on-one literacy teaching to a student -- young and old, English and foreign," said library director Gene Coppola. "To have 50 committed tutors come in here all the time and help out, it's a wonderful effort."

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