By Brittany Schave
Lincoln Literacy has worked for the past 40 years, teaching the people of Lincoln to read, write and speak English.
The organization started with a small handful of volunteers back in 1972, after hearing Frank Laubach, a Christian missionary known to many as “the apostle to the illiterates,” stop to speak in Lincoln on his literacy tour throughout America. Lincoln Literacy’s original slogan was “Each one teach one,” which they adopted from Laubach.
The group first offered mostly one-on-one classes to English speakers who struggled with reading and writing. As a large wave of immigrants started to come to Lincoln in the 1990s the organization expanded and started offering classes for people who did not speak English as their first language.
“We’ve gone from a community that was quite homogeneous,” said Clayton Naff, executive director for Lincoln Literacy, “to really representing the whole world population.”
Lincoln Literacy started holding group classes in the 2000s. It currently offers 50 classes a month, serving more than 1,000 people each year, according to Naff. The classes range from conversation classes to full-service classes, in which Lincoln Literacy staff members pick up and drop off students in the organization’s van, provide free childcare during classes and offer free classes to children. The group classes are free, but one-on-one classes have a 20-dollar fee, which can be waived if there is a financial need or the student is a refugee.
Lincoln Literacy currently serves 82 refugees. Donna Stadig, program and operations manager, explained that refugees have a limited amount of time to learn English, get a job and find a place to live after arriving in America.
“It’s unbelievable what they have to do to make it,” Naff said.
Lincoln Literacy aims to help refugees specifically with “workforce readiness English,” which involves learning how to interview for a job, how to tell time and how to count money. Stadig explained that a high demand for capable employees exists in Lincoln.
“When you get people out there with jobs, it helps them support their families,” Stadig said.
On a Tuesday morning in early April, Carol Boellstorff, a retired postal service worker who works as a tutor for Lincoln Literacy, led a class of two English Language Learners in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in Lincoln: Mu Doh, a refugee originally from Burma, who had been living in a refugee camp in Thailand, and Kili, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq.
The two practiced making change, which proved to be difficult. They then switched to a different task, each member taking a turn standing up and saying aloud five pieces of clothing and five body parts. Both women laughed as Boellstorff named her tongue while sticking it out.
The group also looked at a picture of a grocery store and practiced saying items aloud they would typically buy. “We eat too much, this one,” Kili said when describing rice.
Boellstorff wants the women, both of whom are young mothers, to be able to read aloud to their children in English, and she is helping them work toward that goal.
Classes for new students are held on Monday and Saturday afternoons. Lincoln Literacy does not operate with a set curriculum but aims to personalize the learning for each individual. The outcomes for the students have proven this teaching method to be effective: 66 percent of English Language Learners hit their benchmark on the test given to students by Lincoln Literacy.
Tutors for Lincoln Literacy must be at least 16 years old and be able to read, write and speak English. Lincoln Literacy holds a training program every month, and prospective tutors need to attend a one-hour orientation and one or two training workshops. The workshops for tutors who will be working with English Language Learners teach students cross-cultural awareness.
As part of their training, tutors sometimes will be put into a situation where they do not know what is going on, which seeks to give them insight into some of the challenges faced by the people they will be working. Tutors are also taught to use visual aids— such as picture dictionaries— to help take the uncertainty out of communicating.
One of the most rewarding aspects is when tutors and students make a good match, according to Victoria Welles, Lincoln Literacy’s training and development manager. Welles is fondly referred to as the “matchmaker” by her coworkers, since she spent 10 years as the English Language Learner coordinator, matching students and tutors together before she was promoted.
The tutors give Lincoln Literacy reports on the progress students are making. When a student gets promoted or places an order at a McDonald’s restaurant by speaking instead of gesturing towards the menu it is a big accomplishment, Welles explained.
“When our tutors talk to their students they become more than the just teachers of our language,” Welles said. “They become mentors and hopefully they become friends, and that’s the most important thing.”