Literacy Volunteers embrace new home with an expanded mission

Lok Pyakurel, from Bhutan, and Raymonde Mbahonankwa, from Burundi, come to the Jefferson School City Center each week to work on conversational English with the Literacy Volunteers. Photo: Christian Hommel Lok Pyakurel, from Bhutan, and Raymonde Mbahonankwa, from Burundi, come to the Jefferson School City Center each week to work on conversational English with the Literacy Volunteers. Photo: Christian Hommel

Maria Rodriguez, a 25-year-old au pair from Panama, found herself wondering what the heck she was doing here when she arrived in Charlottesville last spring. She knew nobody, and with an English language background limited to written words and no verbal skills, she had to constantly ask her host family to repeat themselves. She felt useless.

Literacy Volunteers Charlottesville/Albemarle (LVCA)—a local nonprofit that provides English education on every level for adults—paired Rodriguez with a tutor. After seven months of intensive one-on-one training and a daily mantra that fluency would further her career, Rodriguez can now carry on a conversation and is learning complex grammar and sentence structures that many American high schoolers still can’t grasp.

For Rodriguez, language means opportunity. “With English, you can go to anywhere,” she said.

When the organization was founded in the early 1980s, LVCA’s main focus was teaching illiterate American adults who had somehow flown under the educational radar and managed to get by for years without high school reading and writing skills. Thirty years on, most of LVCA’s efforts go toward helping a steadily growing population of immigrants learn the English they need to become citizens. The organization recently moved into a bigger and better space at the Jefferson School City Center. But even as it’s expanding, the organization is seeing state funding evaporate, and hoping local donors step up to help address a constantly growing need.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy from the U.S. Department of Education, 13 percent of Charlottesville’s population and 8 percent of Albemarle’s—including both foreigners and Americans—lack basic prose literacy skills.

Executive Director Ellen Moore Osborne said nearly 90 percent of the hundreds of students LVCA accepts yearly are from a foreign country and need to learn English to advance academically or professionally. She said students typically remain in the program for a year or two, and last year alone, 59 students advanced to a higher education level, 12 obtained U.S. citizenship, and 16 were promoted or found better jobs.

“We’re really looking for students who are willing to do the work and put in the time,” Osborne said. “It’s no longer little old ladies who want to learn to read the Bible. It’s people who need this for their jobs. For survival.”

Osborne said the organization is almost always at capacity, but its limited resources force a certain amount of selectivity. The state recently reduced its funding for literacy programs, providing LVCA about $7,000 per year—$13,000 less than in the past.

The money shift was a hard hit, but Osborne isn’t concerned about keeping LVCA afloat.

“I just have to do a lot more fundraising and grant writing now,” she said with a shrug. “And hey, it’s our 30th anniversary —If everybody just gave $30, we’d be in great shape.”

Monetary needs aside, Osborne said LVCA simply can’t serve everybody. Prospective students are evaluated to determine whether they’re a good fit, and staff need to know that they’ll put in the effort so volunteers’ time is put to good use.

Volunteer tutor Kathy Santon has a master’s degree and 15 years experience teaching English to non-native speakers. She also has first-hand experience as a foreigner struggling to learn another language. Santon spent years living in France and Belgium, and quickly learned how essential—and challenging—it was to pick up French.

“If you’re just studying a language in school, that’s one thing,” she said. “But if you’re living in the country, and you need this language to function, that’s something else.”

Santon taught English as a second language in Pennsylvania before retiring in Charlottesville, where she spends several hours each week tutoring foreign students working toward U.S. citizenship. She’s helped groups of Bosnians, Turks, and Koreans pass the rigorous test, and currently works one-on-one with a man from Mexico and a Nigerian nun.

When the end goal is citizenship, Osborne said, the sessions are about much more than learning the language. Students read American history books and discuss current events—in English.

“It’s all in the context of making them better citizens,” she said.

LVCA’s students range from visitors like Rodriguez to resettled refugees trying to piece together new lives. Osborne said the success of the organization has always been in the hands of the volunteers, most of whom are retirees. But now, as the program celebrates its 30th anniversary, Osborne said she wonders what the future holds.

She and her three paid staff were one of the first groups to move into the refurbished Jefferson School City Center last year, and are now surrounded by seven other nonprofits in the building. The proximity to organizations like the African-American Heritage Center and Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA) will open doors to new collaboration, she said. As long as the tenants can fundraise enough money to pay off the $7 million in loans in the next five years, sharing the space with fellow nonprofits can only bring good things—and new volunteers—to LVCA.

Joint math classes with Thomas Jefferson Adult Career Education and civics programming with the heritage center are on the horizon, but Osborne admitted that she can’t even imagine what else could be in store for LVCA.

“We’ve already come across opportunities we’d never thought of before,” she said. “So being here is a big unknown for us.”

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