Behind the counter at the Merced County Library, Pamela Cornelison saw a lot of adults come up to ask, "Can you read this book to me because I forgot my glasses?"
"People kept forgetting their glasses," she recalled. "People typically don't walk up to you to ask for help."
The Read and Succeed program, which she and librarian Jacque Meriam created in 2008, can get rid of the embarrassment behind the question.
It's the only adult literacy program in Merced County, she said.
"You can't do any of that if you don't have an education or can't read," she explained. "We help adults achieve reading skills that will help them in their life."
Volunteer tutors work with adult "learners" to help build reading, writing and numeracy skills. There are two levels of literacy: Level 1, where an adult can read a little bit but not well enough to fill out an application, read a food label or read a story to a child; and Level 2, where an adult can perform more complex tasks, such as integrating pieces of information, but can't carry out higher-level reading and problem-solving skills.
Twenty-five percent of English-speaking adults in Merced rank in the lowest two literacy levels, according to Cornelison. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 35 percent of Merced County adults 25 and older have not graduated from high school -- and may not even have gone to high school, Cornelison said.
"If you go to the younger ages, ages 18- to 24-year-olds, nearly 30 percent are high school dropouts," she said.
The Literacy Lab, located on the ground floor of the library, hosts a wall of bookshelves lined with books on caterpillars, butterflies, Spanish-to-English dictionaries, the Civil War, UFOs, ghosts and timeless classics, such as "Moby Dick" and "Gulliver's Travels." Tutors and learners can sit at the tables together twice a week for 90-minute sessions.
"The goals are set by the learners themselves," she said. "We call it an 'unclassroom,' because so many people are traumatized by traditional classroom settings."
The literacy program coordinator, who is getting her master's in Library and Information Science through online classes at San Jose State University, has seen progress in her own learner, Ira John Chilcoat. He's been with the program since it first began.
On Wednesday afternoon, Cornelison and Chilcoat worked on a crossword puzzle together. Chilcoat, a 52-year-old who was a welder for 20 years, started attending the program because he wanted to learn how to read job applications, hospital paperwork and -- most important -- the labels on medication bottles. "Even at restaurants, you need to be able to read," he noted.
Chilcoat said he'd made it to the ninth grade in Merced, but he felt as if he'd been "pushed by."
"I'm sure I wasn't reading at the ninth-grade level," he said. "It's pretty important. I've never been able to read in the past."
Books dealing with adventures and the outdoors, such as "Robinson Crusoe," interest him the most. The first book he read, still his favorite, is "Call of the Wild" by Jack London. He is on his twelfth book, "Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land."
Seated not too far away, Dennis Henriques, 45, had his first lesson with his tutor, retired teacher Sheila Quall. Born in Portugal, Henriques moved to Merced when he was 12. A sports enthusiast, he's participating in the program "because I'd like to pick up the newspaper and read the stories. I do pick it up from time to time, but sometimes you can jump to conclusions."