Growing number seeking help at Literacy Volunteers translates into success, progress for our community

Julie LaGrow, director Literacy Volunteers of Chau-tauqua County, works with students in the 21 East Bookstore.

The gift of literacy is one that keeps on giving; beyond the student, it impacts the whole community.

Literacy Volunteers of Chautauqua County has made transforming individuals and communities through the doorway of literacy its mission. Now, with a grant from the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation, it can do even more.

Positive ‘passions’

Director Julie LaGrow explained the grant is for translation assistance by higher-level students. The money goes toward gift cards to thank the students.

Ana Julia Carrion is one of the higher-level students helping translate for lower-level learners as part of the grant.

A volunteer tutors a student at Literacy Volunteers of Chautauqua County.

She started in the program a year ago knowing very little English, but back in Puerto Rico she earned a bachelor’s degree in education and taught kindergarten and first grade.

“One of my passions is working with kids” she said.

Carrion added the grant program has allowed her to pursue another of her passions — helping others

“It feels great to help. One of my passions is helping people and I know what I’m doing with Julie is something positive,” she said.

Carrion helps Literacy Volunteers and other nonprofits with translation services, phone calls and presentations to community groups. LaGrow said she also helps with outreach to let people know about the program.

“The program is great. In Puerto Rico you have to pay for English classes; here it is free,” she explained.

Carrion credits her new English skills to a good teacher — one of several interns for Literacy Volunteers from SUNY Fredonia named Hannah.

“I’m still learning. I’m happy to know my English is better than the first time I came to the program,” Carrion said.

The grant allows Carrion and other high-level English learners like her take what they’ve learned to the next level and turn them into marketable skills.

“Having higher-level students like Ana Julia translate during lessons helps the students feel more comfortable and helps with retention” LaGrow explained.

She added the one-on-one classes offered by Literacy Volunteers also help students who may feel embarrassed learn at their own pace.

Once students reach a certain level, they can be referred next door to BOCES to try to get a high school equivalency diploma.

The students

Before being interviewed, LaGrow and Carrion were giving two new students their second test. Every 30 hours of instruction a student receives a test.

Iris and Josephina have been participating in the program for a month and answered questions about going to the library, the grocery store and what they like to watch on TV.

“I need to speak English. I like to speak English,” Josephina said.

She plans to use the skills she learns to get a job.

“Josephina has children in school,” LaGrow added. “I was talking to another student the other day about her children having to stay home from school because they were sick. I asked her if she wrote the school a note. She said she did, but hung her head and said she wrote it in Spanish. We worked on how to write a note in English and the next time she was so proud to show me the note she wrote in English. Things like going to the grocery story, to the bank, reading a medicine bottle, all the things we take for granted, you don’t realize how hard it can be.”

Iris said she also needs to speak English for her appointments and plans to keep studying.

“When Iris says she needs to learn for her appointments she means doctors’ appointments. There are certain appointments where a translator has to be there. Can you imagine how embarrassing it could be to have to have someone there for certain procedures?” LaGrow said.

Literacy Volunteers gets mostly Spanish-speaking students, but has also had two Vietnamese students and a Polish student.

Growing need

Literacy Volunteers has a waiting list for students and is always in need of volunteers.

LaGrow explained it is easy to become a volunteer with online, user-friendly training.

“It helps you learn strategies to teach students,” she said, adding she can also help anyone with training who is not comfortable with a computer.

Training takes eight hours, but LaGrow said she was able to do it in an arm chair at home and it was easy to pause the program when she needed to make dinner for her family or answer the phone and come back later.

Once trained, Literacy Volunteers matches a volunteer and a student based on their time availability. Meetings happen one to three times a week for two to six hours of instruction and are in a public location like the library, a community center or at the Literacy Volunteers’ 21 East Bookstore at the corner of Washington and Second streets.

LaGrow noted volunteers do not need a background in teaching, just a high school diploma, and Literacy Volunteers will give them the training, curriculum and guidance to teach their students in reading, writing, math, computers, life skills and work preparation.

“The people you are working with don’t speak English at all. People think you need training as a teacher, but we provide all the training you need,” she said.

Literacy Volunteers is aided by the interns from SUNY Fredonia, but LaGrow noted volunteering is down across the state. The number of volunteers directly impacts the number of students Literacy Volunteers is able to tutor.

LaGrow added volunteering is rewarding.

“When I hear from volunteers, they leave here feeling good because you have students who are so proud of their progress,” she said.

She recalled some former students who have succeeded as a result of the program

“One student we had worked really hard and after a year she was able to get a job in the cafeteria of the middle school. She would not have been able to do that before. Another student worked in the grape fields. She was wearing a snowsuit, tying grapes in the snow. She has three kids at home and needed to learn to read so that she could pass her high school equivalency test to get a better job. By doing that we didn’t just help her, we helped her family and the community. The effect of helping one person grows exponentially,” LaGrow said.

Other ways to help

For those looking for other ways to support Literacy Volunteers, stopping by the 21 East Bookstore is a good choice for a deal and to help a good cause.

“We operate on a shoe-string budget and the board of directors has done an amazing job with the funding we get from New York state. There are always cuts. In 2016 we had a 20 percent cut from the state. The book store pays the rent. It is all volunteer and all donations, so every penny from there goes  to Literacy Volunteers,” LaGrow explained.

The bookstore is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is always accepting donations, both monetary and gently used books.

For more information on Literacy Volunteers, stop by, call 366-4438 or visit www.lvoccread.org.


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