It’s not necessarily true that everyone who walks into the San Benito County Free Library actually knows how to read.
Friends of the Library, a nonprofit organization whose volunteers often lobby for the library at government meetings and hold fundraising events, provides reading tutors for adults who are either illiterate or need to improve their reading comprehension skills for a specific goal.
County Librarian Nora Conte said the Adult Literacy Program is a feature at many libraries throughout the state. Originally, she said, the program was offered at the San Juan Bautista Library. Soon after coming to the county library in 2006, she applied for state funding. While the amount varies, she said it ranges from $16,000 to $22,000 each year.
“That pays for a staff person to run it and we purchase books and materials so individuals can practice their reading and writing skills,” Conte said.
The head librarian said there are around 18 volunteers to help with the program. A volunteer must first read a three-hour guide online to be prepared to instruct those who sign up for the program. She said some of the volunteers are retired teachers. Most are at a point in their lives, she said, that they want to give back to the community.
Retired teacher Rebecca Salinas, 13-year member and treasurer of the nonprofit group, is currently working with her fifth student to up their literacy skills. Her love of libraries goes back to when she was a girl growing up poor in East Los Angeles.
“The one thing that opened to us becoming more educated and more Americanized was the library,” Salinas said, crediting libraries for how well she and her siblings have done. “One of my brothers was the president of Sacramento State. Another brother was the CEO for a nonprofit corporation that weatherizes low-income homes.”
Salinas recounted how her father was always reading and his love of books influenced her and her siblings. As soon as Salinas and her brothers discovered the library, they spent many hours there. She eventually became the representative of her East Los Angeles neighborhood library to the California State Library.
Salinas credits her love of books for becoming a teacher. After retirement, she came to the San Benito County Free Library to find out how she could volunteer.
“I was asked if I could tutor and I said I would love to,” Salinas said. “Now I’m on my fifth student.”
Salinas quickly realized that teaching children in school and teaching adults are two entirely different things, she said. She taught first and second grade students at several elementary schools. Later in her career, she became an administrator, principal, and superintendent in Watsonville and Salinas.
The library posts announcements about the adult literacy program, Salinas said, and anyone interested in joining as a “learner” will be added to a list. There is also a list of potential tutors.
Unfortunately there are often more learners than tutors, Salinas said.
“There are never enough tutors,” Salinas said. “Sometimes I take two [learners], like I am right now.”
She described the list of tutors as fluid because volunteers are not always available. Presently, there are only around 18 volunteers associated with the list, according to San Benito County Librarian Nora Conte.
The learners come in all categories with different goals, but they should at least begin with a basic command of English, Salinas said.
“The very first person I tutored was a gentleman who wanted to learn how to write better,” Salinas said. “He spoke conversational English and wanted to speak and write better because he wanted to ask his boss for a raise. That was his goal.”
Salinas is currently teaching a 74-year-old man who speaks English, but never learned to read in any language. She said it is more difficult teaching a person who cannot read at all and she had to approach him as she was teaching a child. The learner had managed to go through life never reading and, according to Salinas, didn’t even tell his girlfriend he couldn’t read. Only after the girlfriend asked the learner to text her did she become aware that he couldn’t. The girlfriend encouraged him to sign up for reading comprehension program at the library.
“He’s doing well with ‘Dick and Jane’ because we have those books and he remembers them from when he was a child,” Salinas said. “He remembers some of the sight words. I’m teaching him phonetically because when he came to me he couldn’t read anything. He’s coming along.”
It was a little difficult teaching another man, Salinas said, because he would ask the English words specific to his work, which she didn’t understand.
“He asked me ‘what is a joist?’” she said. “He was a welder and he needed to weld a joist and I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Salinas asked the library staff member in charge of the program for help and she was given a dictionary of construction terminology, acquired through Friends of the Library.
Another learner Salinas helped fell under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. She said when they first met three years ago, the learner was 18 and spoke little English. But because he was educated in Mexico, he could read Spanish, which was a big advantage when it came to his learning English.
“It’s very difficult when a person doesn’t know how to read in their own language, but when someone is educated in their own language, they pick up English,” Salinas said. “This kid is very bright and he picked it up quickly. What they really need to do is speak English, so when we’re one-on-one it gives them the opportunity to speak and practice English. They don’t mind you correcting them. They want you to.”
Salinas continued: “He started with no understanding of English. He passed his GED, went to Gavilan College, and now has two associate degrees.”
Salinas has also worked with two women: one from the Ukraine and the other from Russia.
“They wanted to pass their citizenship tests,” Salinas said. “I started teaching the one from Saint Petersburg, Russia. She spoke much less English than her friend, who I have now and has been here seven years. She speaks fluent English, but there are times when she doesn’t know the meanings of certain words. I’ve been working with her for about three years.”
Salinas said a state grant funds the program to hire a person to manage it, as well as materials for the classes. The San Benito County Free Library is always on the lookout for both learners and tutors.
For more information on the program, either drop into the library or call (831) 636-4107.
Friends of the Library will be taking part in the upcoming San Benito Gives fundraising campaign on May 15.