There are many misconceptions about people seeking help with their literacy skills, explained Ulster Literacy Association Executive Director Cassandra Beam. “We have students with master’s degrees.”
ULA has been working for 30 years to build reading, writing and communication skills for over 40,000 Ulster county residents, operating on funding from the United Way and grants from the Dyson Foundation. About 175 volunteers meet up weekly with those in need for cost-free, one-on-one tutoring sessions at local libraries. ULA recently merged with Ulster BOCES’ General Equivalency Diploma (GED) preparation program to extend the span of its GED-skills preparedness. The GED prep program offers assistance with all aspects of the GED test, including the dreaded math components. Some people prepare for years before sitting for the test, whereas others need just a few sessions.
Other ULA programs include computer literacy, math, creative writing, English as a second language and pre-GED. ULA also offers regular weekly creative writing workshops to female inmates of Ulster County Jail — a program which volunteers describe as both rewarding and exhilarating for enabling women to share their stories. Three former ULA students have become tutors in the program, as well as a former inmate from the jail program.
There are different types of skills to be imparted, explained Beam, based on the student’s immediate needs. “We use authentic materials — real materials — that students bring from their lives,” said Beam. “Students bring us things they need help with, like labels, applications, bank statements, legal letters. Things that they need help with right away.”
The average age of those seeking help from ULA is roughly 40 years old, noted Beam. Some need a boost with reading, or writing or English as a second language, as well as dyslexia, comprehension skills, listening, communicating or more. Some people can see the letters and words they’re reading, but not understand them. Others don’t recognize letters but are not necessarily dyslexic. “Then they must un-do this, and rebuild it.” Beam said. According to Beam, every brain works its way around these challenges differently, and the tutor/student team determines how the student learns best.
People who have been reading their whole lives do not know what it means to not be literate, said Beam. ULA is currently working with a man from Pakistan with his master’s degree but so little English skill that he works in the bakery department at Wal-Mart, barely able to take orders for sandwiches. He is learning conversational English in the English as a second language program. “They suffer from social isolation,” said Beam. “They want people to learn about them. There’s this whole old-school philosophy that those who don’t speak English want to be by themselves only in their own communities, insulated.”
ULA volunteers are as individual as the students, which Beam ensures by making a high school diploma the only requirement needed to get started. “The more diverse the tutors, the more diverse the population we serve.” The volunteers go through ULA’s special training to learn the craft. The GED-prep program is open to anyone who no longer can access the public school system, generally at the age of 21, or whose skills aren’t strong enough to get into BOCES or Ulster County Community College.
At any random hour you can walk into the literacy center in Willowbrook Park in the City of Kingston and see a dynamic cross-section of students, each working with their own tutor. Danielle Degaetano of Kingston has been improving her literacy skills for five years with nearly the same tutor one-on-one, and is preparing for her GED which she hopes to be ready for next year. Degaetano dropped out of high school, pregnant at 16. “I’m getting better in reading,” Degaetano said. “I’m getting better in writing too. I like writing.”
Degaetano said that when she finishes the program, she would like to have a job working at Macy’s at the acclaimed MAC makeup counter. Degaetano showed well-loved, dog-eared photos of three treasured people who she says she misses and has inspired much of her writing — her kids, ages 7, 14 and 16. Degaetano is hoping to have one day have her children return to her and believes that they will be proud to know that she earned her GED.
Luz Munoz of Kingston works at Blimpie’s. She came to the United States from Mexico with little English. “I moved here for better opportunities,” she said. However, Munoz has been relegated to working in all-Spanish-speaking environments because she lacked communication skills. Nine years ago, at the age 17, she gave birth prematurely and her baby was hospitalized for two months. “I couldn’t understand what was going on with my son. No one could explain it to me.” She has been studying conversational English for four years and will take the GED soon.
For most, the issue of lacking literacy skills is so visceral, that they have no internal foundation upon which to build any self-esteem. The pain of being learning-disabled without help — unable to participate easily in life’s everyday incidentals like ordering off a menu — is painful, inhibitive, humiliating and erosive to a person’s development.
Thomas (who requested we not print his full name) shared that he stopped high school at ninth grade in Kingston city schools. “I’m slow,” he declared. “I got made fun of. The teacher put a dunce hat on my head. I was called ‘jack-ass’ by my whole class.”
Thomas’ goal is to be a stronger reader so he can open an Italian restaurant. A new student at ULA, he bitterly admitted that dropping out started him down a bad road, but his overall tone transitioned to optimistic enthusiasm as he explained how finding God and living as a Mormon changed his life. One of his goals is to be able to do all of the necessary paperwork for his restaurant.
Blandine Nda came to the states four years ago alone from West Africa’s troubled Ivory Coast, ending her education at 14 years old and forced by circumstances to leave her children behind. Nda began to learn English with nuns until moving to Ulster County. She has been attending ULA almost every day for six months, working her way through all of their programs. Nda said that English is confusing, but argues that her native French is far more difficult, requiring more words to make a simple sentence. Nda regards the ULA center like an anchor and part of her daily existence. “I feel comfortable here. It feels like home.” After some coaxing, Nda reluctantly admitted her ultimate dream: to one day become a nurse.
Self-esteem is the most prevalent issue at the table, and at every table where a ULA tutor and student works together. “Asking questions about grammar is hard work,” noted Beam, insisting that working one-on-one with another person changes everything. “One person’s eyes on you, focused on you. It’s unlike any other learning experience. For people who want to read and write, this is a personal awakening. We shepherd people through that,” said Beam.
Billi-Joe Byrne is a GED instructor and reading specialist through BOCES, and was one of the evening’s tutors. “I feel like I don’t do that much,” said Byrne. “The students put in so much. They put in so much time and effort. You’ve improved their lives. Even their kids get excited for them … You hear all these negative things, and then they ‘do it’,” Byrne emphasized. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Both Beam and Byrne concurred that emotional support is the most critical element ULA offers through one-on-one tutoring. “You’re walking someone through personal growth,” Byrne said.
The community-at-large is invited to celebrate the 30th year of ULA on May 20 at Skytop Steakhouse from 3-5 p.m. Community Scrabble is also on the table for upcoming events as well. For more information about Ulster Literacy Association visit ulsterlitercy.org or call (845) 331-6837.