Literacy Council celebrates 50th anniversary

TALC tutor Chris Egan works with learner Aurora Arévalo, a student of English as a second language. Photo courtesy of TALC

You’ve seen them in your library – two adults sitting side by side by side, workbooks piled in front of them, intent on their study. What are these folks up to in that carrel or study room? Very likely you’ve espied a volunteer teaching someone to read, write, and/or speak English under the auspices of the Tacoma Area Literacy Council (TALC).

TALC owes its existence to Dr. Frank Laubach (1884-1970), international literacy proponent, who pioneered the idea of having “each one teach one.” In 1967, Dr. Laubach, headquartered in Syracuse, NY, spoke in Seattle about his literacy program, chartered in 1955. Fortunately for Pierce County, two women living in Tacoma attended the compelling presentation.

Mabel Lowd (1905-1981), a retired church secretary and social worker, and Margaret Sutherland (1894-1985), also a social worker, held the first meeting of the Tacoma Laubach Literacy organization in January 1968. That March, with assistance from the Portland Laubach Council, they held the first workshop to train tutors. Since that time, TALC volunteer tutors have taught thousands of adults to read, write and speak English.

Fifty years later, this all-volunteer organization, with 80-90 tutor-learner pairs throughout Pierce County, is observing a yearlong Literacy is Golden program. First and foremost, TALC salutes the many past and present volunteer tutors and their learners. Second, the organization honors and thanks the many grantors and donors who make it possible for TALC to offer free instruction and half-price books to tutors and learners. Third, the occasion highlights the continuing need for literacy instruction.

TALC tutors teach both American-born basic adult students who have learning difficulties, and those who are English language learners. Special education programs in our schools have reduced the number of basic students needing services, but tutors continue to encounter adults who cannot read and write well enough to survive community college, or who left high school without graduating. Nationally, 60 percent of jailed adults and 85 percent of juveniles in detention are functionally illiterate, sad statistics that point to unfilled educational needs.

Pierce County’s non-native English-speaking community is burgeoning. Twenty percent of residents in Pierce County speak a foreign language in their homes. Consequently, TALC’s demographic has shifted to this population. To reach more of them, TALC now conducts weekly two-hour classes in three locations: Sumner, Parkland-Spanaway and Puyallup.

Consider all the reading you do on a daily basis: road signs, medical prescriptions, safety instructions, forms to fill out, job ads, a book to a child, a note from a teacher, to say nothing of this newspaper and other media online or in print. Residents who are unable to speak, read, and write our national language not only deprive themselves and their families, they can also exact a toll on the community due to poverty, crime, and health and safety issues that ensue.

One of our tutors helped her truck-driving student read the government’s complex hazardous materials’ manual so that he could pass the test to carry such items. Another tutor helped her student pass the EMT exam, and another enabled a nursing student from Africa to be better understood when speaking English. One tutor coached her Korean student through college courses that led to the student’s employment as a teacher at a community college, and many immigrants have become United States citizens by working with TALC’s dedicated tutors – just a few of the many success stories attributed to the program.

Fifty years after TALC’s founding, the need to impart literacy demands more community involvement than ever. If readers have the time and interest to become a volunteer tutor, they are invited to visit the website: to sign up for a three-day tutor training course that will next occur Oct. 9 and 10 and Nov. 7 in University Place. If readers know of adults who could use individualized instruction, refer them to the website. As all of those diligent tutors and learners you’ve observed in the libraries will attest – literacy is indeed golden.

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