San Luis Obispo is a county of disproportionate statistics. Compared to the rest of the state’s 73.5 percent, the county’s white population nears 90 percent, according to the U.S. Census. The number of high school graduates levels out at about the same, with 89.6 percent of residents attaining at least a high school diploma or higher. These are the kinds of rates that convey a certain image of the county—predominately white, educated, privileged. It’s certainly an easy stereotype to cast over the region, but it’s not an entirely accurate image.
For more than 30 years, the San Luis Obispo Literacy Council has proven its necessity in the face of continued illiteracy throughout the county. With a population of around 276,443 residents, the council estimates that 25,000 of those adults are “functionally illiterate.” It’s a staggering number and one the council hopes to overcome with a comprehensive tutor program.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, the First Presbyterian Church in downtown SLO becomes a hub of animated conversation. At around 9 a.m., volunteer tutors and their mentees walk in, eager to get to work. They pull out grammar books, worksheets, and pictures found in magazines. They run through practice sentences like, “There are nine children.” They go through new words, repeat them, and emphasize their meaning with grand gesticulations. All of these tools the Literacy Council uses in service of its primary mission: to teach the English language, in all its variety and strangeness.
The council has been doing some form of this work since the mid-’70s, when the county became increasingly aware of the influx of immigrants to the area, many of whom lacked not only English skills but the resources needed in order to attain them. Soon, the organization partnered with the public library, and the library has since provided the council with its own office on the second floor of the San Luis Obispo branch. Executive director Bernadette Bernardi joined the staff more than 10 years ago after a surprising experience at a former job.
“I was a job developer for an organization,” she told New Times. “And I had a client, an English speaker injured on a job who couldn’t read or write. … At the time I got my position, I was finding a career out of the workforce, and so many of my friends said this was ideal for me—‘You love to read and work with the community.’”
Bernardi’s been with the council ever since. Along with one other full-time staff member, she oversees an impressive outfit. The organization maintains eight learning centers, spread across the Central Coast from Nipomo to Paso Robles. For the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the Literacy Council boasted 249 volunteers, with more than 400 learners served and a total of 21,922 hours clocked. Like the statistics earlier, the numbers are dramatic. But it’s behind the numbers, in the personal encounters between teacher and learner, where the council truly excels.
Every couple of months, a new volunteer training session takes place. They meet at the public library in downtown SLO. Anyone is welcome, regardless of their experience with education. You just have to be able to read and speak fluent English. Over the course of two sessions, volunteers learn how the program works (they ask for a commitments of at least six months) and teaching techniques. Then, they pair each volunteer with a learner. Like the program as a whole, this process is based entirely on personal dynamics.
Take Mary Matakovich, former principal of SLO High, for example. She’s been with the Literacy Council for around three years, and, in that time, taught four to five students who are now able practitioners of English. Her current learner is Teresa, a young mother from Mexico who keeps 3-by-5 cards of all the English words she’s learned. So far, there are hundreds.
“I was retired, and the thing I was missing was being around students,” Matakovich said. “I knew I missed this.”
The “this” Matakovich refers to is the unusual alchemy that develops between a tutor and a learner at the Literacy Council. When you walk into a group tutor session, you can see people laughing, smiling, and joking with each other despite the language barrier. There’s an undeniable spark in the room that comes from the devotion of not only the tutors, but from the learners as well.
These are people like Bella, who moved to this country from China only four months ago. At the time, she spoke no English. She re-located to give her daughter a better education. Now, she uses phrases like “See you later, alligator” with more panache than most native speakers. There is a determination and a drive in her, like most of the learners and volunteers, to better herself and to become an active member of the community.
Bella’s story, Teresa’s story, and Mary’s story are only a fraction of the success stories that come out of the Literacy Council’s efforts. Every year, the organization helps hundreds of people pass their GED exams, citizenship tests, read maps, and converse with an ease that was previously unthinkable.
Bernardi tells this one particular story about a former learner who came to a donor event for the council. He came to the function with all the academic achievements his kids had received at school. Because of the Literacy Council, he could now talk to other parents about his kids’ accomplishments. He could be active in their lives.
It’s an incredible personal story, but one that speaks to the literacy council’s overall approach. It takes statistics, like the 10.4 percent of foreign-born SLO residents, or abstract notions like social mobility, and gives them an individual face and, more importantly, an individual voice.
As for the future, they’re looking to expand. There are still areas of the Central Coast that are in dire need of literacy aid, places like Paso and Nipomo in particular. In addition, Bernardi mentioned a possible literacy program that would help learners at their place of work. Not to mention, there are new immigration laws this year that may affect the program in uncertain ways. But Bernardi has hope.
“I think what makes us special is that we have the support of the community,” Bernardi explained. “We have amazing volunteers. They’re flexible, compassionate, and patient. It’s a mentorship that develops, and every day they work together, there’s a stroke of self-esteem and a job well done.”
You can contact Arts Editor Jessica Peña at email@example.com.