Photos courtesy of Literacy Council of Seattle
Many tutors work one on one with people to help them learn language skills

Ballard Nonprofit Gives the Gift of Literacy

By Christy Wolyniak

For the last 40 years, the Literacy Council of Seattle has provided education for refugees, immigrants, and native-born adults. Finally, after so many years, they are starting to get recognized for their work.

“The most vulnerable parts of our population were ones out of work that were becoming homeless. I started wanting to look at LCS in a more global way and help the bigger picture of it, because I believe in the mission so strongly. Literacy is the first step,” said Jennifer Collins-Friedrichs, President of the LCS Board of Directors.

LCS recently won a Seattle Met Magazine’s Light a Fire Award 2012, which were given to organizations and individuals that “made Seattle a better place to live, learn, and grow.” Nominated for the “Most with the Least” category, LCS enriches the lives of adult learners with minimal resources, using the help of volunteers and donations.

“It is quite remarkable with everything that we do,” said Anna Kovacevic, a part-time program manager. “I’m happy Seattle Met Magazine picked us. I couldn’t have picked a better category myself.”

Headquartered in the Ballard and Crown Hill area, the organization collaborates with the Seattle Public Library, community centers, and low-income housing facilities managed by other local nonprofit organizations. Classes are offered in Rainier Beach, North Seattle, Beacon Hill, and Downtown.

Most classes are one-on-one, although the campus also offers small class tutoring. As there are no interpreters, LCS trains its tutors to work with speakers with low English-speaking levels.

“We try to remove any barriers to access, whether it’s working around their schedule, meeting in a library -- we try to make sure nobody’s left without the skills they need to be parents, community members, and employees. We have grown in terms of the number of people served, thanks to our fabulous volunteers,” Collins-Friedrichs said.

Only 12.2 percent of individuals who could benefit from English language instruction receive it, according to the 2004-2005 enrollment records from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that one in ten adults over the age of 16 lack basic English literacy skills.

When the organization began, the founders worked only with native-born Americans who never got the reading and writing skills necessary to become productive members of society, Collins-Friedrichs said. Today, the scope has expanded to include foreign-born residents who have immigrated to the area.

Kovacevic understands the challenges of learning a new language. Escaping Yugoslavia when the war started, Kovacevic and her family moved to the U.S. when she was 12.

“It’s very disorienting not being able to speak the same language as the country you’re living in. Many people are not able to get the same opportunities because they don’t speak the language as well, or they are not able to get certain positions because their English is not up to par,” Kovacevic said.

Volunteer tutors have put in about 10,000 hours, reaching the highest number of students LCS has seen since its start in 1969. Two years ago, the nonprofit offered five beginning English classes every quarter -- now they offer 10.

For tutors, the experience is very rewarding. Many students will stop attending classes upon attaining a goal -- be it acceptance into a Master’s Program, or landing the job they wanted, said Kovacevic.

In January, LCS will begin training individuals to become tutors. No teaching experience is required, but tutors must be open to learning how to work with individuals of various backgrounds, according to Collins-Friedrichs.

“The thing I love about being here is that we don’t charge these people. It is amazing to see them attaining their goals and moving forward in life, not just for themselves but for their families,” said Kovacevic. “We are not taking anything from them financially, but giving them a greater confidence in themselves; sometimes that’s all it takes.”

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