After two years of one-on-one, weekly study sessions with her tutor, Sandra Baker finds joy in being able to read road signs or the instructions on a microwave dinner. She is sharing her new love of books with her grandchildren and neighbor kids.
Statesboro Regional Library's adult literacy program recently recognized Baker, who will turn 49 this month, as 2010 Literacy Student of the Year, and her tutor, volunteer Pat Burkett, as 2010 Literacy Teacher of the Year.
Wiping away tears at times when asked to tell her story, Baker seems a born example of how adult literacy programs can change lives.
"I feel wonderful. I feel blessed to have an opportunity to fight back again, to have this chance to see new things, to spend time with my teacher and then whenever I go out into the world, just to see that I'm getting another chance," she said.
Baker was originally from the Savannah area, where she dropped out of school in ninth grade. She was pushed along through elementary and middle school with rudimentary reading skills. These faded during years of single parenthood, when she raised four children on a combination of food stamps, welfare checks and jobs cleaning up at motels.
She did not return to school, and sometimes concealed her inability to read.
"I was kind of ashamed," Baker said. "I didn't have (anybody) to help me."
She was also abused by a boyfriend, and arrived in Statesboro as a resident of the women's shelter Safe Haven. It was there that she heard a presentation about the literacy programs available through Statesboro Regional Library.
Meanwhile, Pat Burkett, who had retired after 24 years as a housing administrator at Georgia Southern University, thought volunteering as a literacy tutor would be rewarding. Prior to her work at GSU, she was a middle school teacher for six years, teaching math, social studies, science - but not teaching reading.
"I can't imagine not reading," said Burkett. "I read constantly. So I thought if I could help someone else learn to read, that would be a good use of my time."
She took a tutor training course for two evenings at the library, and the program's leaders matched her with Baker.
They have met at the library, usually once a week, since September 2008.
They are working through the Laubach series, reading materials designed specifically for adult learners. As Baker acknowledges, she had to start over learning the relationship between letters and their sounds.
"We started with the alphabet, but we got it," Burkett said.
"Yes," Baker agreed.
This week, in what must have been close to their 100th session, Burkett was reading short passages aloud from the book, while Baker was writing them down.
"This is a powerful thing for Sandra to be able to learn how to read," Burkett said.
Burkett describes the feeling she gets from her role as tutor as "indescribable."
One of Baker's stated goals from the outset was to be able to read stories to children. Within the first year, she got her own library card, checked out a book, took it back to the women's shelter and read it to children there.
As Elaine McDuffie, the library's head of Youth and Family Services, explains, one-on-one tutoring is one of the program's several approaches to adult literacy. Statesboro Regional Library, in cooperation with Ogeechee Technical College, which has primary responsibility for adult literacy in its service area, also provides one English as a Second Language, or ESL, course and one General Equivalency Diploma, or GED, course.
While instructors, paid through Ogeechee Tech, teach the ESL and GED courses, the one-on-one tutoring is taught exclusively by volunteers. The program provides all the workbooks and other materials, but the volunteers are entirely uncompensated.
Volunteers take the training and are certified as tutors by Pro Literacy America. Unlike the GED courses that are for students who did not complete high school but may be ready to take the exam in a few months, the foundational literacy tutoring can last for years.
"Many of the adults we have in our program who are getting individual instruction may be older, and getting that diploma is not their primary concern," McDuffie said. "It's more about functioning in their environment, being able to do their own shopping, understand instructions on their medicine, reading the things the kids bring home from school, understanding a rental agreement and insurance policies and all those things."
Helping at Pineland
In addition to the classes and tutoring sessions based at the library, the program uses volunteers to provide foundational literacy instruction at a facility operated by Pineland Mental Health.
Currently, the library has 20 volunteers doing individual tutoring, plus about five more available for group settings such as the one at Pineland.
Of course, the program would welcome more volunteers, especially people willing to make a long-term commitment. Baker and Burkett meet for only an hour to an hour and a half, once a week, for most of their sessions. But they've been studying together for two years and they're not done yet.
Baker will appear in a video for the United Way campaign, which funds the literacy program. Besides the space provided, the only state funding is for the salaries of the group instructors and a portion of the director's salary.
Ogeechee Tech also offers adult literacy services on its campuses, and the college and library are in long-term collaboration to serve as many people as possible.
"Altogether, organized literacy programs only reach about 10 percent of those who need the services, so there is no competition," said McDuffie.