Getting the Word
Celebrating its 10th anniversary next month, Grant County's Literacy Link-Leamos program changes lives, one page at a time.
Being able to read a story to your child does take some planning when you're in jail.
Trustee Shaun Sandoval, 26, is first allowed to put on jeans and a favorite skateboarding shirt. Joseph Andazola, deputy administrator at the Grant County Detention Center, hangs some towels behind a chair to lessen the starkness of the jailhouse office. Michelle Detterick, program coordinator of Literacy Link-Leamos in Silver City, readies a small video camera and laptop.
After reading a story to a group of children at a downtown Silver City park, Michelle Detterick, program coordinator at Literacy Link-Leamos, helps distribute a free book to each child. (Photos by Harry Williamson)
Sandoval sits in the chair, opens up the brightly illustrated children's book, Glamsters, smiles at the camera, and says, "Hello Ailey, this is Dad." He reads the first sentence, "Harriet the Hamster was vexed," turning the book toward the camera so his daughter can see the picture of two hamsters in their cage at the fictional store, Hamster World.
Once the story is read — and the hamsters discover it's always best to just be yourself — Detterick puts the video on a DVD and delivers it to Ailey, along with a copy of the book for the three-year-old to keep as her own. It is one of the approximately 10,000 free books given out each year by Literacy Link-Leamos to area children and families. Next month, the literacy program celebrates its 10th anniversary of boosting reading in Grant County.
"I was nervous and a little embarrassed about giving Ailey a video she will probably always have of her father when he was incarcerated," Sandoval says. "What made it easier was that it shows I love my daughter."
He is serving 244 days in the Grant County jail for contempt of court and other misdeeds. While there he is taking classes taught by Literacy Link-Leamos volunteers to help him pass the General Educational Development or GED test. Sandoval says he dropped out of Silver City High School in his junior year after losing interest in school following the death of a close friend.
Is quitting school a direct link to poverty and prison? Some experts think so.
For example, the Arizona Republic newspaper noted that when the state projects how many prison beds it will need, it factors in the number of kids who didn't read well in the fourth grade. CNN has reported that 7,000 American high-school students drop out of school every day.
Ed Greenberg, who previously taught reading and math skills in the Maryland state prison system and is now a Literacy Link-Leamos volunteer at the detention center, cautions that statistics are available online to support almost any argument. He does believe, however, there is great benefit for inmates in attending class or receiving tutoring while in jail.
"It gives them more options, and anytime they have more choices for the future, it decreases the likelihood they will end up back in jail," he says. "The more learning they get, the more they realize there are a lot of possibilities out there."
Sandoval is a strong reader, and helps other inmates improve their skills, "sharing the wealth," as he says. He adds, "How are they supposed to take care of their kids if they can't read?"
Once he gets his GED, Sandoval is working on a plan after he's released from jail to attend technical college in either Phoenix or Denver, to obtain a degree in computer operating systems.
"If a person gets their GED it opens up a window," Detterick says. "If they go on from there and continue to increase their skills, that opens up a door."
As it's grown over its 10 years, Literacy Link-Leamos provides a wide array of programs, all tailored to meet the individual needs of its students, who are referred to as "learners." The two-person, part-time staff is Detterick, a former social worker and elementary school teacher who has headed the program for nine years, and office manager Marilyn Berry. They operate from a small office at the Silver City public library.
There are currently slightly more than 60 volunteers. "I only count the volunteers who have put in hours during the most recent quarter," Detterick says.
The word "link" in the group's name signifies its efforts to connect family, school and community. "Leamos" is Spanish for "we read." All of the nonprofit's services are offered free of charge.
Literacy Link-Leamos' website says it's "a nonprofit organization and a community of learners and volunteers dedicated to promoting literacy, learning and the love of reading in Grant County."
All accurate, but the statement doesn't quite catch the dedication and passion of its staff, board members and volunteers.
Nor does it fully describe the gratitude of its learners.
"I will be thankful all my life for this program. Michelle and Miss Thelma, they are like my angels," says learner Patricia Corral, who was born in Mexico. "I feel confidence now because I can understand. I can work. I have a job. I can be independent."
Classes at the Grant County Detention Center, conducted by Literacy Link-Leamos, cover everything from GED preparation and math skills to reading and resumé writing. Participating are, from the left, Shaun Sandoval, Joshua Medina and Lorenzo Flores.
After a neighbor in 2007 told her about Literacy Links-Leamos programs to teach English as a Second Language (ESL), Corral started in a class taught by Detterick. She also received one-on-one tutoring from volunteer Thelma Sordyl.
"Patricia was a bit reluctant at first," Detterick recalls. "She had such a negative image of herself because others had put her down for not speaking English correctly. The only really safe place for her to come and try to speak English was with us here at the program."
Seven months after starting, Corral was certified as a nurse assistant after being hired at Fort Bayard Medical Center. Along with working full-time, she is now receiving GED tutoring from a Literacy Link-Leamos volunteer, after which she plans to go back to school "to get some type of medical technician degree." She is also studying to take the American citizenship tests next year, while tutoring another Mexican woman in English.
Asked how perfect she would like her English to become, Corral looks across the table at her American questioner. "One day I will be like you. I know it's not easy, but I'm doing it step-by-step," she says. "Thank God for this program. Thank God for my teachers and for the United States."
"Imagine a person like me if I didn't have you guys. Where would I go?" says learner and volunteer Xinyan Weeks at a recent meeting. "Here, my teacher is my friend. In college, the teacher just says, 'Read the book and turn in your essay tomorrow.'"
Ed Greenberg, one of the Literacy Link-Leamos tutors at the Grant County Detention Center, discusses an assignment with a class member.
Born in a small town in China, Weeks and her family have lived in Silver City for three years. She is a coordinator at Western New Mexico University, helping to ease the culture shock for Chinese exchange students.
Vivacious and animated, she has become an ambassador for Literacy Link-Leamos in the community and at public events.
"We're always giving away books," she says.
Although she speaks eight languages, including several Chinese dialects, Weeks felt she needed help with her English pronunciation, learning to say words "the American way," and knowing more about what makes Americans tick.
"There is something different about your thinking because you are a Westerner and I am Chinese," she says. "I wanted to learn the lifestyles of Americans, how they live every day."
Shortly after arriving here she met Detterick and joined an English class that included learners from Brazil, Russia and other countries. "With Michelle's help, I have gotten a lot more comfortable, and my job has gotten easier," Weeks says. "I'm beginning to feel I'm not an outsider."
She is also tutored by Karen Bryan, a retired school superintendent and one of the 15 members of the Literacy Link-Leamos board of directors.
"I have a student who is smarter than I am," Bryan says, nodding at Weeks. "I rack my brain to try to teach her things so she can be more independent, because that is the goal — to give her the tools that she needs, not what I need to teach.
"Xinyan has a mind that never stops," Bryan adds. "She always wants to know more. So I am honored to be there for her with more."
Describing how Legacy Link-Leamos functions for learners, Bryan says it's nothing like going to a school and signing up for a class.
"Literacy has a big trust factor; it's a partnership and a friendship. You have to do what you promise," she says. "It does no good to have people who finally gets the nerve to walk in and say they can't read, and we say, 'Oops, we can't be here that week.'"
Bryan says the learning process starts by asking the person what they are here for, and then the program tries to provide it.
"We bend over backwards to see if what they're asking for is something we can do, whether it's a GED, help with pronunciation, math competency, job-readiness, or whether it's being able to open up my email and work on a computer," she says. "After 10 years, we are known in the community so people are more comfortable being part of the services we offer. I think we're like an old friend now."