Mercedian sets sights on helping others learn to read and write

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comNovember 17, 2013 

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— Pamela Cornelison embarked on a mission nearly five years ago: to help the people of Merced County learn how to read and write English.

Without those basic skills, the 69-year-old Mercedian said, people get left behind.

“Sometimes all it takes is that feeling of hope,” said Cornelison, the county library’s literacy program coordinator. “No one deserves to be left behind, no matter what they’ve done in their lives.”

Seeing the critical need to help adults gain literacy skills, Cornelison launched the Merced County Library’s Read and Succeed-Merced Adult Literacy Program. The free program started with just two people – Cornelison and one learner. Now it’s grown to more than 200 trained tutors, 400 adult students, and 22 people on the waiting list.

The students come from all walks of life, Cornelison noted, from an 80-year-old grandmother who wants to break the cycle of poverty to a 16-year-old who dropped out of school after winding up in jail.

No matter the circumstances, each student is given one-on-one tutoring for about three hours a week. There are no lectures. Instead, students learn at their own pace using a curriculum designed for adults.

“Adults don’t learn like children,” said Cornelison, who’s worked at Sunset magazine and the Mariposa County Library. “They have a whole set of life experiences that helps in some ways, but it can also hinder them. We look at it as helping one person at a time, and that’s how we make a difference.”

Whether it’s to obtain a GED diploma, read a book to a grandchild or open a bank account, each student identifies his or her goals.

Merced resident Ana Mendez dreams of working as a physical therapist. A nurse in Mexico, the native Spanish-speaker now has to earn her GED diploma in the United States.

“It helps a lot. The best part is I’m learning,” said Mendez, 23. “The first time I came here, it was hard. But now it’s easier to talk with others.”

Her tutor, Rosalie Adams, said she’s been working with Mendez for a year and they’re focusing on breaking the language barrier. “She’s good at math, so what we’re trying to do is build her vocabulary,” said Adams, a retired teacher.

For 60-year-old Kim Trang, it was all about gaining confidence in her English-speaking skills. The Vietnam native worked full time while raising a family, so she never had time to go to school.

“I think that if you live in the United States, you must understand and read that language,” Trang said. “I feel more confident than I did before.”

Kenneth J. Leap, Trang’s tutor, said he has seen vast improvement in his student over the past year in the program. “A year ago, Kim wouldn’t say a word in English,” Leap said, “and today, it’s hard not to get her to talk. I hear her in a group and she does really well.”

Cornelison said these are just a few of the program’s many success stories. Others include people who were in prison, homeless or dropped out of school who now attend college classes.

Thirty-three percent of adults 25 and older in Merced County do not have a high school diploma, according to statistics from the 2010 U.S. census. More than half the adult population suffers the lowest two levels of literacy, which include lacking skills to read a story to a child, according to Literacy Volunteers Census Analysis.

Statewide, more than 40 percent of Californians are poor readers or functionally illiterate, according to the Community College Research Center.

Merced County Librarian Diane Satchwell said it was these challenges that drew her to Merced nine months ago. Now, she finds herself signing a handful of certificates each week for students who’ve completed different levels of the literacy program.

“All it’s going to do is strengthen the core of Merced,” Satchwell said. “It’s only going to be a good thing for Merced to improve our literacy rates and help others be stronger readers.”

Satchwell said Merced County is fortunate to have someone as driven as Cornelison heading the program, which is funded by the California State Library and the county’s Human Services Agency. “One way to measure how successful the program is, is by whether or not you receive continuous funding, and we have,” Satchwell said.

The Read and Succeed program is not just in Merced; it’s part of the services offered by libraries in Atwater, Dos Palos, Gustine and Delhi, among others. The program will have a volunteer tutor orientation on Dec. 3 in the Literacy Room at the main library, 2100 O St. in Merced.

For more information about the program, call (209) 385-7391.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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