Turning a Page
Literacy Council Celebrates a Half Century of Teaching and Empowering
When Charles Beckwith graduated from high school more than three decades ago, he was sent into the world with a diploma and second-grade level reading skills. He was smart, a good student, he says now, but just couldn’t break through that reading roadblock.“I was leaving school and was unable to read,” says Beckwith,now 52. “I felt I wouldn’t be able to make a life for myself, get my driver’s license, fill out a job application. I was scared and nervous. I thought about suicide.”It became his secret, one he feared friends or employers would discover. “Once people know, they want to hurt you and beat down on you,” says the Frederick resident.
So, like other functionally illiterate adults, he learned the tricks, the subtle ways to avoid “being found out.” Can’t read road signs? Stop and ask for directions. Can’t read the menu? Say you forgot your glasses, even if you have 20/20 vision. Want to take in a movie? Listen to what movies others are buying tickets to see. “You’ve got to learn a lot of tricks and watch people,” he says. It worked. Beckwith and his secret got by for many years. But when he was offered a job promotion, he knew getting by would no longer work. The promotion would mean corresponding with clients. He didn’t want to lose the opportunity. He had to learn to read. Beckwith contacted the Literacy Council of Frederick County (LCFC) about 18 months ago and, after taking a placement test, met with volunteer tutor Joe Parker. A few months into tutoring, Parker suspected that Beckwith might suffer from dyslexia. It was confirmed by testing. “I was bummed out, but I decided there is no sense crying about it,” Beckwith says. “At least now I understand and go on and do what I need to do.”
When other commitments prevented them from a tutoring session in January, Parker suggested Beckwith check out a few children’s and adult library books, along with the audio versions. He instructed Beckwith to listen to the audio version and follow along in the book. Then Beckwith was to read the book without the audio. It worked.
“When we met later in January, Charles had finished those and checked out his first adult book, ever,” Parker says. “Working with Joe and learning I have dyslexia, it put down all the doubts,” Beckwith says. “I don’t have to hide it any longer. I know what it is and I can deal with it. It freed me up.”
EACH ONE, TEACH ONE
It’s estimated that more than 17,000 Frederick County adults have literacy issues, be they individuals whose first language is English or those for whom English is a second language. The LCFC’s mission is to teach people to read, write and speak English. The nonprofit’s services are free and confidential. It’s staffed by volunteers, with the exception of one part-time office manager. Programs include individual tutoring to local residents age 18 and older who speak English but need to improve their reading, writing and spelling skills, and individual and small group instruction for adults from other countries who desire to learn the language.
Caroline Gaver, president of the board of directors, started as a tutor 38 years ago. “The biggest change has been the change from teaching native English speakers to teaching immigrants to speak English,” she says. Currently, about 75 percent of the students are learning English as a second language.
The LCFC, now completing its 50th year serving the community, has roughly 100 volunteer tutors who are providing instruction to about 175 students, Gaver says. Most tutors are women and there is a need for male tutors.
“It’s important to think about the difference this makes not just in the person’s life but the life of their family and within the community,” Gaver says. “It changes everything. If you can read, then the other things fall into place.”
Illiteracy contributes to unemployment, underemployment and the inability to advance in a job. Illiteracy also results in greater use of emergency health care services, welfare and social services, and typically leads to increased crime. LCFC board member and retired Circuit Court Judge John Tisdale saw its effects in the court room. “I realized there are a lot of different things that motivate people to do what they do, and I’m not making excuses, but they may just not feel good about themselves. Illiteracy can do that to a person,” he says.
Denise Dertzbaugh is a tutor and leads one of two group classes that help foreign-born students practice casual conversations in English. She was a third-grade teacher in Montgomery County schools for 33 years and, after she retired, thought it would be fun to work with adults and trained to be a tutor.
One of her students is Momo Izumi, 32, who came from Japan to Frederick with her husband two years ago when he took a job at NCI. A Japanese friend invited her to join Dertzbaugh’s class. “I think I can read, but not perfect. I wanted the practice in English conversation,” says Izumi, who studied English in middle and high school in Japan. Americans speak “very fast, and that’s difficult,” she says.
Silvia Munoz, 36, was an attorney in her native Peru. Her husband came to America first, “looking for a better job, an opportunity for a better life for our family,” says Munoz. She arrived here two years ago. Munoz volunteers with several local organizations but felt nervous in English conversations. She’s also an avid reader and learned about the LCFC from the public library. She studied with Dertzbaugh, then took the tutor training and is now tutoring a Hispanic student, teaching her to speak English and to read in Spanish and English.
“First, I want to help people speak better English,” says Munoz, who also works part time as an interpreter for a local attorney and at the Asian American Center developing a legal assistance center.
“You don’t have to be a teacher to do this,” Dertzbaugh says. “It’s as simple as imparting what you know to someone who doesn’t know it. A friend said that people who do this will feel very rewarded by their students. That’s very true.”
ABOUT THE LITERACY COUNCIL
The Literacy Council of Frederick County was founded in October 1963 by members of Church Women United who, while assisting the area’s migratory farm workers, discovered that many couldn’t read. A trainer from the Koinonia Foundation, of which the famed Frank C. Laubach was president, trained the volunteers.
After the migratory workers moved on, the tutors soon discovered that many native-born Frederick residents, more than 10 percent of the population, also needed reading help, and tutoring continued year-round. The LCFC was located in the Schaeffer Center at Evangelical Lutheran Church until 1982, when offices were moved into the C. Burr Artz Public Library.
On average, more than 200 adults are tutored annually and more than 3,000 tutors have been recruited and trained. For more information about the LCFC, visit frederickliteracy.org, email [email protected] or call 301-600-2066.
The Literacy Council will mark 50 years of service by hosting an awareness and fundraising event Oct. 23 at the Weinberg Center for the Arts. “An Evening With David Brooks: Read Your Way to a Better Life” will feature a special
presentation by one of America’s best known journalists, commentators and authors. For tickets, visit www.weinbergcenter.org or call the box office at 301-600-2828.