Merced County Library program working to improve adult literacy

September 23, 2010 

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."

He can speak three languages, "but I can't read them," he said, adding he speaks Portuguese, English and Spanish.

There are about 40 active tutors and learners rotating in and out of the program, Cornelison said. Six of the 40 tutors work at other branches of the library. They have trained 62 tutors, but not all of them are active. Most of them work at the main library. Tutors must be high school graduates or have their GED, read at a 12th-grade level and be English-speaking. They go through an hour and a half of orientation and additional training that lasts almost seven hours.

"Learners" must be English-speaking and 18 years old. But, she said they will take 16-year-olds if they aren't enrolled in school. And, of course, they must have the ambition to learn. Most of the adults come from various partnerships the library has with other agencies -- Merced College Business Resource Center, the rescue mission, drug court, human service agencies and probation.

"Either (they're) starting from nothing or improving their skills," she said. "It depends, we do have people whose first language is not English. But they speak English and they have problems with comprehension."

The program began in 2008 with a $5,000 donation from North Merced Rotary Club, but didn't get off the ground until January 2009, according to Cornelison. At the end of 2008, the library got a three-year grant from California Library Literacy Services, a program of the California State library, for $41,000 a year. The library also has a contract that started with more than $100,000 from Merced County Human Services based on the number of referrals.

Cornelison, who first taught her younger brother to read -- his obsession was dinosaurs -- said they are trying to branch out their services. "We're also looking into helping businesses with their employees who may have to learn English," she said.

If you're interested in becoming a "learner" or a tutor, please call (209) 385-7391 for more information.

As the old Chinese proverb puts it, a book is like a garden carried in the pocket.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or

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