Reading and Righting

Custodian With a dry mop in a hallway

LITERACY COUNCIL OF FREDERICK COUNTY TEACHES MORE THAN LANGUAGE SKILLS

By Karen Gardner and Photography by Turner Photography Studio

There was a time when literacy skills once meant reading books and newspaper want ads, but that has since expanded to computer activities—something the Literacy Council of Frederick County took even further during the pandemic.

“We went virtual within about three weeks [of the COVID-19 shutdown],” says Jennifer Szabo, program manager for the Literacy Council. 

The Literacy Council worked with volunteers and students to make sure students had internet access. Students, volunteers and the council’s four staff members all needed to become accustomed to Zoom videoconferencing. That was challenging enough for staff and volunteers, but even more for students, many of whom are not fluent in English.

“There was a huge learning curve in terms of volunteers and students and access to technology,” Szabo says. “We can talk about reading and writing, but it really rests on, ‘Do we have internet? Do we have the device that can function in the way that we need it to and the language skills that accompany digital literacy?’”

Two years into the pandemic, most of the council’s programs are still online. And although some in-person classes will soon resume, providing the human connection many students and volunteers miss, the digital offerings will remain. “This was the unexpected part,” Szabo says. “Many of our students and volunteers were challenged with not having transportation or childcare. Now that they’re in their living room, we’re able to plug in. We’re able to meet students where they are.”

Another unexpected benefit from virtual instruction is that families became more involved in a student’s literary journey by joining in the Zoom session, experiencing what the student was going through. “We’re seeing families gathered around the computer for tutoring sessions,” she says. “We’re able to meet students where they are, bring families together and connect in ways that we weren’t able to do before.”

In 2021, the council served 253 people, including native English speakers who struggle with literacy as adults. Word of mouth brings in most students, and the waiting list is typically two months. “The basic foundation is people are looking for a better life, whether born here or elsewhere,” Szabo says. They may be your parent, neighbor, or coworker.

“My goal for the students coming in is for them to feel comfortable and connected, for them to have a safe place to learn,” Szabo says.

HELPING OTHERS

“I’ve always volunteered someplace,” says Anna Orndrish of Myersville. Orndrish joined the Literacy Council as a volunteer tutor in late 2020, and she has only known Zoom tutoring. Orndrish is a first-generation American. Her parents immigrated from Greece, and she grew up speaking Greek at home. 

“When I went to first grade, I didn’t speak any English,” she says. This was in the 1970s. “There was no ESL [English as a second language classes]. I’m not bashing the public school system; it’s just where we were at the time.”

School officials wanted to put her into remedial learning, but her parents decided she would learn English in a private school. They still spoke Greek at home, and today Orndrish speaks Greek as fluently as she speaks English.

She thought her skills could help others, especially those people who, like her mom, speak little English. “I work as a quality assurance consultant,” she says. “I’ve trained people and managed people, and I felt confident I could help somebody.” She has worked with global strategic teams, which involves working with people from different cultures who speak different languages.

Orndrish teaches employment skills, such as how to fill out a job application. “I have them create a resume,” she says. Students practice interview questions with her and each other. “We touch on how to find jobs online,” she says.

Each class starts on a more personal note, however. “I always open with, ‘How was your day?’” she says. One student mentioned his job with online food delivery service DoorDash and Orndrish turned that into a teachable moment.

“I told him, ‘I don’t understand DoorDash. Can you tell me what it is?’” she recalls. He replied with a thorough explanation—a skill that will be helpful as he seeks new jobs. Another student said she spent the past 10 years raising her children, and she and Orndrish discussed her workplace-relatable skills in working with people and resolving conflicts.

Orndrish also got a taste of the language difficulties her students face. “I was talking about my chickens and rooster, and in the chat, I spelled ‘roaster’ and they didn’t get it,” she says. “It was a huge teaching mo-ment for me. I was confident I was using the word correctly, and here I wasn’t. There have been plenty of those examples.”

OUT OF COMFORT ZONE

While Orndrish works with nonnative English speakers, other volunteers instruct native English speakers who struggle with reading and writing. Volunteers don’t need teaching or management experience, Szabo says. “Many are stepping out of their comfort zone,” she says. “We have volunteers who started as students.”

Szabo has a background in linguistics and ESL. She recalled a trip to Hungary while in high school where she struggled finding a meal for her group. “That overseas experience of not being able to find a place to eat has stayed with me to this day,” she says. “How do you meet your basic needs if you’re struggling with reading or writing or speaking? It’s something many of us have never experienced.”

It’s that experience that council volunteer Donna Huffer channels to understand the challenges facing one of her students, Olinda. A 41-year-old Monrovia resident, Olinda worked as a dentist in her native Peru. But when she moved to the United States in 2013, she decided on a different type of health care career. “I chose nursing because I can help more people as a nurse than as a dentist,” Olinda says. 

Huffer helps Olinda learn the English skills she needs to get into Frederick Community College’s nursing program. She is uniquely prepared for this mission, having retired from 40 years of nursing in December 2020. Huffer spent much of her career in staff development and nursing education at the University of Maryland. She also taught in FCC’s nursing program for 10 years.

We practice with medically appropriate things she’ll need in nursing school,” Huffer says. Olinda doesn’t struggle with the subject matter. She’s an honors student. “One of her holdbacks is being able to hear conversation,” Huffer says. “The problem is we speak so quickly, she’s got to grab all the English at once and she misses key points. What’s difficult is grasping things in regular conversation.”

Laurie Fisher, the Literacy Council’s executive director, says communication is the foundation. “The single most important thing we hear from our students is they just want to be able to communicate,” she says.  “Learning English doesn’t happen overnight.”

Huffer is confident that Olinda will be a valuable addition to Frederick’s nursing community because of her bilingual skills. Olinda credits Huffer for helping her fulfill her dream. “I feel very fortunate with my teacher,” she says. “She’s not only my teacher, she’s my mentor.” 

LIFETIME SKILLS

Joseph and Peresse moved to Frederick from Cameroon in October 2019 with their three children: 8-year-old twin boys and a 23-month-old toddler. A few months later, in the early days of the pandemic, Joseph lost his job. Martin Cole, who joined the Literacy Council as a volunteer in 2013, first connected with Joseph in October of 2020. Peresse sits in on some of the Zoom sessions. 

“I’m amazed when I realize his work schedule,” Cole says. Joseph works full-time at Costco and takes classes at FCC. Joseph, whose first language is French, started taking literacy classes with a different volunteer in March 2020.

Cole helped Joseph get his Costco job by role-playing the job interview. In Cameroon, Joseph worked as the head of an admissions department of a local university.

“One of the things I was impressed about with Joseph is that Joseph has a plan,” Cole says. Joseph is taking classes in information technology at FCC and hopes to be working in the computer field. “It’s not easy, but I have many teachers,” Joseph says. “I’m learning very fast.” 

Cole, a retired postal administrator, has worked with people from various countries since he started at the Literacy Council. “You do learn a lot about other cultures, but when I think about coming to a new country, learning a new language and culture, finding a job, and raising a family all during a pandemic, it is incredible what Joseph and Peresse have done,” Cole says.

Frederick Magazine