South Coast Literacy Council
“It [being involved in literacy] is a stimulating thing. It keeps you on your toes,” says Judy Sparanese, President of the South Coast Literacy Council. That said, there are a lot of toes to watch with this California program which covers the southern portion of Orange County. This year they had about 80 active volunteers, more than half of them as tutors teaching English to 400 students. That is 100 students more than last year; and now some centers have had to make a student waiting list.
No doubt, they will rise to the challenge . . . just as they always have. The Council was formed 40 years ago to meet the needs of adults with low reading skills. Almost immediately they identified a need to teach English to its non-English speaking population. In the early 1970s that population was mostly Spanish speakers. By the mid-70s they were serving a large number of Vietnamese refugees, later joined by Iranians. Now the students come from many countries: Columbia, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, China, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Japan, Taiwan, the Baltic States, Eastern Europe and more. While the students have changed through the years, the Council’s determination to teach them English has remained fervent.
In 1970 the program’s tutors used The New Streamlined English (which later became Laubach Way to Reading) as its core book. It was written to teach reading and writing to English speaking adults. So the Council’s tutor trainer, Onalee Carter, stepped in and developed the Tutor Guide Cards to teach volunteers how to teach the oral skills to go along with the lessons. The “Carter Guide Cards” (as they became known) were used by many programs for many years.
Fast forward to 2012 and you see the program still doing whatever is necessary to be effective. Today tutor training workshops are conducted online. This makes it easier to train more volunteers to work in the 13 centers across the county. First, prospective tutors contact the Training Supervisor, Mary FitzGerald. She gives them a password to take the training course, and related quizzes, online. Along the way, they visit the center where they want to volunteer. They complete in-service training by applying their learning with students at the center. The center director notifies Mary when the volunteer has successfully demonstrated the skills learned. That’s quite a change from the previous 18-hour face-to-face training Mary and other tutor trainers used to conduct.
Today’s technology has changed more than tutor training. The Council’s new website has increased their visibility. It helps to recruit tutors, such as with posts on VolunteerMatch. It also has improved outreach to students. Now when students call, those with Internet access are referred to the Council’s website to see the center locations and hours. This helps them to choose where to enroll for classes.
After 40 years of operation there is one thing that has not changed at the South Coast Literacy Council. It is, and always has been, an all-volunteer run program. There is no paid staff. Its volunteers are compensated by the sense of community and the stimulation they get from being involved. It is not uncommon to see volunteers well into their 80s, and beyond, active at the centers.