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VOLUNTEERS TAKE AIM AT NIAGARA'S POOR LITERACY RATE

With students back in school this month, some adults may be feeling envious. Envious of their child's ability to read, that is.

Literacy Volunteers of Niagara works with some of the most severely limited adults who are classified as functionally illiterate, reading below a sixth-grade reading level. Sometimes far below.

Chastity Flynn of Lockport, a former elementary school teacher, took the helm as executive director of the Niagara County group this past July and said she was "alarmed" by figures that say that 18 percent of all adults in Niagara County can't read.

"Literacy Volunteers has been serving residents of Niagara County for over 37 years. Volunteer tutors in both Niagara Falls and Lockport meet weekly to work on skills. Programs are available for new tutors or students all the time. Not only do we cover reading skills, but also English as a second language, basic math and computer skills," said Flynn.

Under her direction there will be a push to reach out to residents beyond the two offices in Niagara Falls and Lockport and into the more rural areas.

Susan Diemert, Literacy Volunteers of Niagara board chairwoman, said at one time the two offices operated as two separate groups, but in the past two years the offices have merged.

"We were not working well on our own. Nobody had a lot of students, but we had two good boards. Now we can plan events, search for grants and reach out to the entire county," said Diemert.

She said the two offices are very different, with Lockport seeing many "English as a second language" students who need to learn to read in English to further their careers, while Niagara Falls has more people who learn as groups and seek education in other subjects besides reading.

Both offices came together to receive federal accreditation, something she says neither office would likely have been able to pull together on their own. She said in the past board members were former tutors who were interested in serving the group, but now board members are being sought who have an expertise in fund raising and policy making. Diemert noted that they are currently gathering names for new board members.

All involved, from board members to tutors, have a keen interest in furthering literacy.

"So many adults are able to get good jobs without reading, they are knowledgeable and can survive. (Problems come) the minute they need to take a test or fill out an application," said Diemert.

Diemert understands these problems, since she has worked as a literacy specialist for 15 years for the Board of Cooperative Educational Services and specifically works with adults who are seeking General Educational Development (GED) diplomas or adults for whom English is a second language.

"Imagine you see a bunch of mixed up letters and someone asks you to read it. This is how it is for people who can't read. They can't even read a prescription for their children," said Diemert.

She said many adults who can't read at 30 or 40 years old have a reason why they can't read. Many of them have learning disabilities that were never diagnosed.

"It's frustrating (as a tutor) to teach someone to read. We try to help tutors. (Students) can't all be taught the same way. You have to try different ways. We hope to give more in-service (training) to tutors working with these adults," said Diemert.

Flynn said that many adults in the program have not had positive experiences in school.

"We see people who reach a point in their lives that they don't want to hide it anymore," she said. They confide in someone or come in themselves.

"They are tired and frustrated. They can't read a newspaper, fill out an application or read a bedtime story to their children or they can't speak English."

She adds that although they hide their inability to read quite well, most suffer from low esteem and inadequacy, especially when they see their children reading better.

"I've always had a love of reading. Reading is the core and everything else branches out from it," said Flynn. "But there is an overabundance of elementary teachers and (I felt) I could make more of a difference and play more of an active role in the community (through Literacy Volunteers.) I see people at a stage in their life when they are eager," said Flynn.

These eager students are paired with dedicated volunteers who make time to work one-on-one with students.

"Tutors are retired teachers who are interested in giving back to their community, or housewives, or people in their 20s. The requirement is you must be 18 or older with a high school diploma. You don't have to be a teacher. We provide intensive training before anyone works with students," said Flynn.

Harold Miller is a retired electrical engineer who worked for Occidental Chemical in Niagara Falls for 32 years. He has been a volunteer for Literacy Volunteers for six years.

"I listened to (former first lady) Barbara Bush years ago when she said to give back to my community," said Miller.

He works in Lockport with those who cannot read or speak English and helps these students to communicate.

"Most of my students are candidates for advanced degrees. I have worked with a South Korean who has a PhD. I am learning a lot about his language and customs and about electronic circuitry. I also am working with a young person from Taiwan who is working towards a masters degree and is learning idiom and (American) slang," said Miller.

Regularly scheduled workshops are offered where tutors can learn teaching techniques.

For those who know of a friend who needs help to read or for those who would like to become a tutor, contact: Chastity Flynn at the Literacy Volunteers of Niagara either in the Lockport office in the second floor of the Lockport Library, 23 East Ave., 433-7014 or in Niagara Falls in the Trott Access Center, 1001 11th St., 278-8224. Tax deductible donations are also accepted to help underwrite the costs of materials.

The e-mail address is locklit@aol.com or lvanfalls@aol.com.

Literacy Volunteers of Niagara is open to all Niagara County residents. There are also 350 affiliate programs nationwide which provide literacy support from trained volunteer tutors.

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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