It’s mid-afternoon on a Friday, and a group is gathered at a pavilion at the Memorial Park, Lemoyne. One young man flips burgers by a grill. A woman arrives with her husband, carrying a bowl of macaroni salad. A third man begins reading the clues of a crossword puzzle out loud, and the members of the pavilion chime in with potential answers. This is not a family gathering, however—at least, not really.
This is the Central Pennsylvania Literacy Council’s Annual Corn Fest, held this year on August 12.
“We’re like a family,” says board president, MaryAnna Borke of Rutherford.
The literacy council, a collaborative partner of the Tri-County OIC Adult Learning Center based in Harrisburg, is an organization that provides individualized instruction in reading and math for adult learners. Presently, the CPLC hosts 34 volunteers and tutors and 28 learners who study at the council between 1-8 hours a week. About half of the adult learners hail from countries outside the U.S. The remaining half are learners who may have simply struggled in school as teenagers and are now redefining their education. But all of them are bound together by the rule that defines the Lemoyne-based center—say hello to everyone, no exceptions, each time you enter—as well as the desire to better their lives.
The Corn Fest, a summer picnic featuring corn-on-the-cob, is one of two annual CPLC gatherings for volunteers, learners, and families. The Council was founded in the 1970s as a response to census data, which had been released by county for the first time. With these numbers, “we saw there was a huge number of people within our area who didn’t know how to read,” explains Carole Sawchuck, director. “We realized it was just normal people who needed reading skills. It was the neighbor down the street.”
Running on the slogan, “individualized instruction for all,” the CPLC advertises itself as being open 24/7 and designed for learners whose needs can’t be met in a traditional classroom. “People who work odd hours aren’t able to show up for a class three days a week,” says Borke. The CPLC maintains an “open entrance, open exit” policy, meaning the learner’s experience will last as long as he or she is available. Each learner also receives a battery of placement exams and is paired directly with a personal tutor.
In addition to providing tutoring in reading and math, the CPLC also offers help in other disciplines, such as word attack skills, phonetics, writing, keyboarding, computer usage, preparation for citizenship exams, practice in written driver’s license exams, and prep for the GED.
Occasionally, a learner just needs help negotiating a job application, a medical bill, or a car insurance claim.
Sawchuck explains that as little as 12% of people who are eligible for state services receive them, a fact which depends partially on an individual’s lack of reading skills. “If you can’t read, you can’t understand your society: the rules that govern you, and the rules that don’t,” she says. “People can tell you anything, but you have to read in order to confirm. That’s what we’re here for.”
Working with the CPLC also can increase a learner’s verbal communication skills, as was the case for Patrick Scott of Susquehanna township. Scott remembers the first time he answered the phone at the CPLC—an act most volunteers are required to do to build telephone skills—as a milestone. “I was nervous and I stumbled over my words,” Scott says. “The person on the other end asked, ‘Is this your first time?’ and then told me it was okay.” Scott has since volunteered with the CPLC for almost 14 years.
Ralph Owens of Penbrook explains that the CPLC, combined with his faith, has given him a new outlook on his life. “My whole character changed. I got a lot of encouragement, got to be around a lot of different people, and now, I’m no longer afraid,” Owens says. At age 56, Owens has been working with the CPLC for five years and is now a member of the board of directors. He is working toward his GED and hopes to work with the elderly and the mentally disabled.
Operating at an annual budget of $12,000 is a challenge, admits Sawchuck, as is the constant need for volunteers. The CPLC is currently seeking tutors with specialized skills in reading, math, and phonetic awareness, and who have a solid grasp of the English language, good communication skills, and the willingness to be patient.
“Often the learners come without dreams, and they don’t see themselves as moving ahead,” says Borke. “But we want to help learners realize their own potential.”
CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA LITERACY COUNCIL
225 Bosler Avenue (rear)
A version of this article first appeared in The Patriot-News on Friday, September 9, 2011.