Tormohlen: Giving the gift of literacy |

Tormohlen: Giving the gift of literacy

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest Column
Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014
Steve Mundinger |

If you’re reading this column, then chances are you’re not only literate but even well-read. In Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, that’s an easy assumption to make.

However, there are thousands of adults from Aspen to Parachute who lack the ability to read a newspaper, write a letter or fill out a job application in English. Most are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, but many are non-immigrants who, for a variety of reasons, never acquired the skills that most of us take for granted.

Imagine for a moment how it would feel to navigate through any given day of work or play without reading, writing or basic math skills. How would you resolve a dispute, communicate with your child’s schoolteacher, read your child’s grade report or complete a routine form?

Two weeks ago in this column, we discussed volunteer mentoring opportunities with children and the importance of mentors, advocates and role models in youngsters’ lives. There are also great local opportunities to mentor adults, especially in the realm of literacy.

At El Jebel-based English in Action, adults with limited English skills are paired with approximately 165 adult volunteer tutors. These students walk into English in Action for many reasons and with different goals. Some are workers who want to communicate better and command higher wages; others are parents who want to advocate for their children at school. Some want to pass a citizenship exam or take a community college class.

One English in Action student from Indonesia learned enough with her tutor that she was eventually hired as English in Action’s administrative assistant. The tutor, a doctor, supported the student through her second pregnancy.

The surprising element of many tutor-student pairings is how much these relationships end up meaning to the tutors. Many tutors and students become cross-cultural friends who meet each other’s families, cook meals together and socialize. English in Action’s motto is “Discovering community, two people at a time,” and the tutor-student matches are the heart of this bridge-building process.

While English in Action serves the region from Carbondale to Aspen, Literacy Outreach does similar work throughout Garfield County. According to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read, which is 14 percent of the population. As many as 23 percent of the adult American population is functionally illiterate, meaning they cannot read beyond a fourth-grade level. Literacy Outreach sees similar numbers in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys.

Literacy Outreach also uses the one-on-one, tutor-student model in its work and claims that one-on-one instruction is the strength of the program. The need for literacy services is amply demonstrated by the organization’s waiting list of 100 people. (English in Action has a similarly long list.)

Kathy, a non-immigrant Literacy Outreach student, explained her situation before she came to the nonprofit: “Going through school, I learned how to hide my learning disability from everyone. I had low self-esteem and no confidence in myself.”

What did she later say about her tutor?

“My tutor knew that I never read any books in my life. Since having a tutor, I have read four really good books. She helped me improve myself at my job and have more confidence in what I want to achieve there,” she said.

This is life-changing volunteer service with proven, communitywide social and economic benefits. Will you consider it?

At English in Action, volunteer tutors begin with a six-month commitment to one hour per week with their student, although most pairs choose to meet longer than that. At Literacy Outreach, most tutors spend about three hours per week.

This is a minimal time investment in order to change someone else’s life, and there are often fringe benefits. As one English in Action student said, “My tutor is my friend.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.