Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/1224sfs-literacy24.html

Volunteers return self esteem
 By teaching reading, writing, others realize worth
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 24, 2003
Shaun McKinnon

Give Debbie Arnoldt a  Stephen King book and  she's good to go for the rest of the evening, not unlike the millions of other fans who can't get enough of the horrormeister.

The difference between them and her is that until 2 years ago, Arnoldt, now 42, couldn't read, certainly not well enough to make it through one of King's thrillers. Not even well enough to have finished high school.

"I felt I was missing out on something out there," Arnoldt said. "There was a whole world out there I was missing."

She had moved to the Valley midway through 2001 and decided she wanted to learn to read and eventually earn her GED certificate. She looked first for a private tutor but had little luck. Then she and her husband, searching on the Internet, found Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County.

It was a mouse click that changed her life.

"I can read now," she said, "I can read and understand what I read. I get fulfilled when I come to school. If it wasn't for these people helping me . . . I don't know. It's made me feel so much better about myself."

Arnoldt is one of nearly 2,000 adults learning to read, write, speak English, even conquer algebra in one of Literacy Volunteers' education programs. If she earns her GED - her goal is to pass the test before this time next year - she'll be among the roughly 42 percent of Literacy Volunteers' students who achieve educational gains each year.

Although that may sound like a middling success rate, Literacy  Volunteers was among the 10 highest-achieving such groups in the state last year, earning a much-needed budget increase from the state Department of Education.

"When you consider they're adults with a lot of other things going on in their lives - jobs and kids and such - that's a pretty good rate," said Lynn Reed, the organization's executive director.

Since its founding in 1982, Literacy Volunteers has expanded its basic tutoring services to include preparation for GED tests, instruction in English and help with workplace skills. The organization offers classes and tutoring sessions at offices in central Phoenix and near Indian School Road and 19th Avenue. A third center will open next month near Hatcher Road and Sixth Avenue.

By the numbers, the typical student at a Literacy Volunteers center is female, Hispanic, employed and 25 to 44 years old.

But Reed said the profile changes constantly.

On the current roster are refugees from Sudan and other African nations, single or recently divorced mothers, and working fathers who just want to improve their lot at work.

The fastest-growing age group is 16 to 18, made up of young people who dropped out of high school and then decided they needed help.

"They quit school and want to go to work, then they realize that other than flipping burgers, there's not much they can do," Reed said. "They want a job that has some sort of future."

She also said that more than half the students who enroll have a job: "They are taxpaying citizens trying to improve their lives."

Methods vary

Teaching methods are as varied as the students. The centers offer classes in basic subjects like reading, writing and math, along with one-on-one tutoring and computer programs that can respond to a student's individual skills.

Most students find Literacy Volunteers the way Arnoldt did, searching for help on their own, or by word of mouth from others who have attended.

"We never advertise for students," Reed said. "They just come in."

Sometimes the demand outstrips the centers' ability to provide services. Literacy Volunteers employs only 22 people full time, relying on volunteers to shoulder much of the work with students. The group is short at least 200 volunteers, with help needed especially in the East and West Valley areas.

Volunteers attend 18 hours of training and then begin work in one of several areas. They work with groups, one-on-one at the learning centers and in neighborhoods, sometimes at a library or community center. The group asks volunteers to give four hours a week.

Arnoldt has grown to value her sessions at the central Phoenix center so much that she now commutes twice a week from Maricopa, where she and her husband bought a home.

She works at a Chandler department store the rest of the time.

"I don't have a day off, but I don't want one," she said. "I love it here. When I don't come, I can tell."

Busy but loving it

She finds herself with math homework sometimes, which she does willingly, and she's preparing anxiously for the GED test, a step her teachers hope she takes sooner than later. But her favorite moments are when she can sit down with a book and read.

"I love to read," she said. "I didn't think I could ever do it. I didn't have enough faith. But I'm doing it and I love it. I just wanted to learn everything I didn't learn in school."