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Literacy Group Helps Provide Language Skills

Pictured are two of the many shelves at the Literacy Volunteers of Chautauqua County bookstore located in Fredonia. The store has shelves lined with multiple genres from science fiction to mysteries or thrillers. P-J photo by Breanna Nelson

Imagine not being able to talk to your child’s doctor or teacher.

Imagine not being able to fill out a job application.

Imagine not being able to read a warning label.

These are just a few examples of daily struggles some people face listed in the brochure for Literacy Volunteers Of Chautauqua County, at the group’s Fredonia location. For any number of reasons there are many individuals who, at any age or in any walk of life, are not able to fluently read or speak English. The organization helps anyone who needs to work on their English skills, from any native language, and they do it for free.

Julie LaGrow, Literacy Volunteers Of Chautauqua County director, discussed what she has seen while working with the organization as the individual who helps new students get started.

“When a student comes in, I do an intake on them — find out where they are, how long they went to school, did they go to school in another country? It’s very interesting,” LaGrow said. “Some students didn’t go to school in their home countries. So, they don’t know how to write in Spanish, let alone now have to learn English reading and writing. And other people come in and they have their master’s degrees from Spain, or from usually Puerto Rico, but central America as well. They need to learn English right away because they need to get a job, but you need to have those language and math skills.”

LaGrow does intake on new students by giving them tests to evaluate where their needs are.

“It will help me pinpoint exactly what subskills they need to work on. Maybe its synonyms, antonyms, finding the main idea of a story, being able to compare and contrast things. The tests break it down nicely. Then we can put the materials together and make a curriculum that is individualized for that person,” LaGrow said.

The students from there typically are paired with a tutor and work one-on-one as a team to meet the needs of each student. However, depending on what the student is working on, LaGrow and the organization’s volunteers will branch out of one-on-one tutoring. For example, LaGrow said there have been times that they put together conversation groups. She said they would see that the students’ needs have grown from vocabulary lessons and practices like that. What they may need is to work within a more realistic setting. A conversation group allows students and tutors to sit down and have a conversation as they would realistically in everyday life, except as they move through their discussions, the tutors (or other students) will correct any issues with pronunciation or grammar.

Currently, the organization offers their tutoring services for free and runs a bookstore. The bookstore is staffed entirely by volunteers and does not serve to make a profit.

“All of our donations that come into our bookstore, they’re all donations,” LaGrow said. “The bookstore workers are all volunteers. So I say ‘buying a book is not really buying a book, you’re actually helping our literacy volunteers by doing that.’ Because 100% of that will come over here to support the education program … we kind of run it on a shoe string budget, but we do a lot with that money.”

However, over the course of the next year, the organization is looking toward expanding. Looking to branch out from the basic English education they provide now, LaGrow said they hope to delve into financial literacy and computer literacy.

With computer literacy, the organization is looking to help educate individuals who may need a little extra help keeping up with technology. LaGrow stated that in a world that is evolving constantly, having basic computer skills has become more and more of a necessity. The course is slated to be simple, but will help educate on the basics for things like text documents and emails.

For financial literacy, LaGrow said she is looking toward eight-to-10-week courses with one for high school students, one for college students and one for adults. The courses would help with subjects such as bank account management, keeping a checkbook register and understanding credit cards.

“You kind of get pushed off in the world and they don’t teach a lot of those things in school anymore,” said LaGrow.

With an eye on expansion, LaGrow did say they are currently doing as much as they can with the limited volunteers they have. Finding volunteers for tutoring, working in the bookstore or whatever else they may need has always been a challenge the organization faces. Now located in Fredonia, up until this summer, the organization had been located in Dunkirk, but it relocated looking to increase its visibility.

“We didn’t have any foot traffic. We were kind of on a back street and so we said we have to do something different, because we want to serve more people,” LaGrow said.

Despite being located in Fredonia, the organization reaches further out, hoping to help more people. Through a grant, the organization was able to bring on Celina Kryk, who focuses soley on bringing the benefits of Literacy Volunteers Of Chautauqua County into Jamestown.

“We don’t really have an office space there. The (Prendergast) library is just letting us use one of their rooms for free,” Kryk said. “We have seven tutors right now, and our main focus is trying to locate students at the moment. I was amazed going to Jamestown … I feel like people want to give back to the community.”

Kryk has been busy planning and working in Jamestown, and has set a holiday event for the community from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, at the James Prendergast Library.

“The event is taking place at the library and it’s a holiday book swap, so people bring books and they can take whatever ones they want,” Kryk said. “You don’t need to be able to bring a book to be able to take one. So we’re trying to encourage people this season to give their favorite stories to other members of the community. That’s the goal of it, because in the holiday season we can get all caught up in the hustle and bustle of everything that’s going on and forget that around the holidays is when we’re all supposed to come together as a community and share our stories.”

Literacy Volunteers of Chautauqua County is always looking for and welcoming new volunteers for tutoring, working in the bookstore, committee members or board members; new students, and referrals for potential students. The bookstore is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and is located at 12 Park Place in Fredonia. To contact the organization, call 366-4438 for Fredonia and 201-0660 for Jamestown or email lvacc@netsync.net.

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