Literacy Program Generates Better Citizens

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Of the next four people you will meet in the Rim country, chances are one will be illiterate.

"Payson has a 22-percent illiteracy rate," Rim Country Literacy Program Director Su Connell said. "That's about one of every four people who live here."

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Rim Country Literacy Program coordinators examine new materials that will help their students become better citizens through an improved command of English. From left to right, they are Amy von Somogyi (English as a Second Language), Ann Henley (GED), Cathy Otto (Family Literacy), Su Connell (Program Director), and Frank Brooks (GED).

RCLP is the sole provider of free literacy instruction in the Payson area. The organization, which is affiliated with Literacy Volunteers of America, has just one paid employee -- Connell.

Everyone else, including the program coordinators, are volunteers. Funding comes primarily from private and corporate donations, United Way, local churches and service organizations, and, this year, from a $10,000 community development block grant through the Arizona Department of Housing.

A major contribution this year -- $5,000 -- came from Qwest.

"Over the last two years, we have serviced over 283 students," Connell said. "Last year alone, we received 4,000 volunteer hours from over 40 volunteers."

RCLP students come from varied backgrounds. Some, for one reason or another, never finished high school. Others are people from other countries who need help with their English.

"Spanish-speaking people are the most common," Connell said, "but we also have had Chinese, French, German and Russian folks we've helped in the last two years."

Still others are unique cases, like the stroke patient in Manzanita Manor who is learning to read all over again thanks to RCLP.

Instruction is varied and is designed to accommodate the needs of students.

"Students tell us when they can come and what kind of instruction they prefer," said English as a Second Language coordinator Amy von Somogyi. "We look at their needs and try to address them."

That may mean individual, one-on-one tutoring, self-paced computer instruction, or small classes held during the day, evening or on Saturday.

"Some people are intimidated by classes," von Somogyi said. "Others come together and want to stay together."

English as a Second Language is one of five programs offered by RCLP. Others include:

  • Family Literacy Program

This newest RCLP program was initiated last year. It services both adults and children by teaching adults to improve their reading skills, which in turn helps their children become better readers, and by promoting parent-child literacy activities in the home.

"The top three things people say they want from family literacy is to learn to read the Bible, to get their GED, and to learn to read to their children," said Family Literacy program director Cathy Otto. "Family literacy has a better retention rate than most literacy programs because they don't want their children to repeat the same educational mistakes they made. We emphasize to parents that they're their children's best teacher."

Based on the premise that reading unlocks the door to all learning, family literacy is often a stepping stone to RCLP's other programs.

  • Adult Basic Education

Through this program, coordinated by Paul Ellinger, adults are given the opportunity to learn to read or improve their basic literacy skills.

  • General Education Development (GED)

Through this program, students who already have basic skills like reading are prepared to pass a test for a high school equivalency diploma. Ann Henley and Frank Brooks are the GED program's co-coordinators.

A common misconception is that a high school equivalency diploma is a poor substitute for the real thing. That, the RCLP staff emphasizes, is far from the truth.

"I've heard employers say they'd rather have a high school graduate than a student who attains a GED," Brooks said. "My answer is come on down and take the test."

Von Somogyi knows how much a GED means from personal experience.

"I actually got my GED and went straight from that to college," she said. "It was very difficult and it prepared me very well for college."

Henley pointed out that only recently have students been able to take the GED test in Payson, thanks to a joint effort by RCLP and Barbara Ganz at Gila Community College. The test is now offered five or six times a year at the college.

  • English as a Second Language (ESL)

Through this program, private tutors and classes are offered to help non-English speaking residents learn English.

"We teach grammar, reading, speaking, and listening skills," von Somogyi said. "We try to cover everything and we like to use real life situations. One tutor had three students who spoke no English, but they all worked in a restaurant. So this tutor brought in a big garbage bag full of stuff you use in a restaurant -- plates, silverware, salt and pepper, napkins -- so they could learn the English names for things they use everyday."

Tutors try to bring in real life situations so people who finish the program can cope in today's society better than before they took the class.

  • Citizenship Classes

Through this program, students are prepared to take the test for United States citizenship.

"Rim Country Literacy Program helps people become better citizens, better community members, even better taxpayers," von Somogyi said. "They become more of an asset to our community after finishing these programs."

RCLP needs more volunteers, especially tutors.

"You don't have to be fluent in Spanish or have a college degree," von Somogyi said. "You just have to have a desire to help others."

And volunteers are needed in other capacities.

"Besides people to work directly with families, we also need volunteers who can work in the office, who can make bookshelves, coat racks, sand and water tables," Connell said.

More money is also needed.

"We need personal donations," von Somogyi said. "One of the things we offer is scholarships for students who can't afford materials, so we always need money to help offset the cost of the materials we purchase and then give to the students."

To volunteer, make a contribution, or for more information, call RCLP at 468-7257. Hours are 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday. The program is housed at Manzanita Manor Apartments, 809 W. Longhorn Road.

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