“That’s why I come here…see if I can better myself right now,” Sam says.
Sam sits on a brisk Thursday evening in November with Vilvi. They are the only people in the Columbus Literacy Council. He peers out the window distracted for a moment and then returns his focus to Vivli. She reads a sentence from Oliver Twist and proceeds to ask Sam to write the sentence, word for word.
He has thick rimmed glasses, and stands tall but lanky — he doesn’t stand or sit straight but rather has a curved stature which makes him appear more approachable than he already is. His smile is warm and friendly, and his face is worn from his age and life experiences. Sam frequently scratches his nearly hairless head.
He is old, yet, he does not know how old, nor does he remember the years he has been out of school, or how many years he attended school. Vilvi corrects him when he states that he’s been coming to tutoring for 25 years, she narrows it down to four or five years. Time seems arbitrary to Sam, although he remembers he was born and raised in Columbus and had been here his entire life.
She asks him how many years he attended school and he brushes over the question with possible lengths of time. He said he struggled with math and history specifically.
“I had a little help making it, without help I wouldn’t have made it.”
He attends the tutoring classes because he wants to get better at grammar, spelling, and reading. He calls his learning “picking up,” and hopes to one day attend college to become a teacher. Sam claims he has a long way to go, so for the time being, he works as a service clerk at Kroger bagging groceries, and “doing everything there,” as he often says.
“Sometimes I can’t figure what the story is about, like what happen to the person. I can’t comprehend stuff,” Sam says, speaking of reading Oliver Twist with Vilvi.
“Write it down,” she says.
Vilvi reads a sentence out of the book. They’re working on reading and spelling at the same time.
“But Oliver did not dream what kind of place it would be…”
“I’ve got to learn how to read, more better than I do today. Plus I want to get my reading more up, it ain’t really up perfect.”
It’s the middle of November now, and Sam arrives again for his tutoring session wearing a red Ohio State cap and brown button-up shirt. A small amount of space is cleared off for him at the main table, but he immediately seems distressed by the amount of people and the lack of tutors. He fumbles through his papers and flips through pages of Oliver Twist, scratching his head and looking around, waiting for help.
“I guess I’ll just wait for a tutor,” he mumbles.
Vilvi, hearing his muffled comment, looks over at Sam and drives her wheelchair to him, stopping in between two chairs at the table.
“Sam, when are you scheduled to come in?”
“Four,” he replies.
“And what time is it?” Vilvi asks. It was 3:44 p.m.
She reminds Sam that he can read on his own. She encourages him to write down all of the words he doesn’t know, and a tutor will be with him when the time comes.
A few minutes pass, and he asks for help on what page he is supposed to start on. He shuffles through several papers in his progress folder, which every student has, but he cannot find where he left off. Eventually, he found the paper where he wrote it down: page 26. He stares blankly at the page — anxious to begin without a tutor.
It’s the week before Thanksgiving at the end of November when Sam arrives for his next tutoring session. He comes wearing his navy blue Kroger shirt. He woke up at 4 a.m. that morning, worked until 2 p.m., and then headed to his tutoring session, which began at 4 p.m. He seems tired, but is at the final stretch of Oliver Twist with his tutor Caleb.
Caleb won’t help him this time around, only to encourage Sam to think on his own.
He needs people to push him. Sam is capable of figuring it out on his own, it just may take a little time. Caleb has faith him. It takes him a while to sound the word out, but he does get it eventually. Caleb tells him to write down “break,” Sam guessed it ended with a “c” to which Caleb says no. Sam then knew it had to be “k.”
“I’m getting pretty good at this…” Sam says.
He shared his tutoring session with Abdu. Sam is more comfortable with the guys than Vilvi. At this lesson, the guys laughed and joked around, seeing who could get the word correct first.
The Columbus Literacy Council, Vilvi & Anne
A winding staircase greets you as you first enter the Columbus Literacy Council. A small side table serves as a receptionist desk beneath the staircase along with a small pile of mail. To the left, a room with three long windows and a forgotten fireplace is frequently vacant. It is far from the living room or family room it once was. Now it is a classroom.
The busiest of the classrooms is the room right off the kitchen, the dining room, now with desks and a bigger table where tutors can sit with more than one student at a time. The lesson books are stacked in the room next to it; it’s a cramped room with a table that doesn’t quite fit. A piñata shaped like a chili pepper hangs from its ceiling.
These rooms make up the CLC: a 45-year-old literacy center that has seen students from all around the world. Its mission is to promote literacy and help its students reach a goal that they normally couldn’t reach on their own. It has grown from helping a mere 20 students to over 2,000 students as a non-profit that depends on volunteered time.
It provides tutoring for Adult Basic Education students, people whose first language is English, and tutoring for English as a second language students, or ESOL students. It’s majority are ESOL, and the CLC’s main method is conversation.
The CLC has six programs offered: English to Excel, English for Occupations, Families Involved Together, Citizenship, Refresh, and Workplace Literacy.
Vivli Vannak — the head instructor — looks small in her wheelchair. Her thin brown hair has a natural curl that seems to frustrate her, as she is constantly pushing it away from her face. She wears no makeup most of the time, which allows her mahogany glasses to give a pop of color to her light complexion.
She has been tutoring at the CLC for 15 years — twice as long as her supervisor, the longest of everyone on staff.
She finds her solace in seeing the students grasp the concepts she spends eight hours everyday teaching.
Vilvi talks frequently and excitedly about the people she has seen improve their literacy skills. She talks about how the breakthroughs or “light bulb moments” as she calls them, are another thing that helps her not to get burnt out.
“I call them my flower-patch. If I get too overwhelmed thinking about the politics in the office and the paperwork, I just start thinking, ‘oh, let’s just talk to a student,’ and then I feel better,” she says.
Like Vilvi, Anne Shepard— a tutor — is often present at the CLC.
“Do you want some cake? Take some cake!”
Anne offers slices of the half-chocolate, half-vanilla cake topped with colorful icing to everyone walking in the door.
The cake sits next to spiral notebooks and reading booklets on the dining room table. To a stranger, it would look like a party, not a tutoring session. But to the majority of people in the room, it was both — a celebration and a chance to learn.
The celebration was for a new beginning for students Hassan and Sebat, a married couple from Iran who have been students at the CLC since June 2015, after Sebat learned about the CLC through the internet. They are moving to California to be with their son, a doctor, who’s business is in construction there.
“Are you excited?” Anne asks them.
“Every kind of moving from one place to another place normally make you a lot of..nervous..you think ‘oh what will happen in future.’ People have this something…like..this…pressure,” Hassan said, every word carefully articulated to ensure accuracy.
These are considered conversation groups, where having an every-day conversation for some is a learning experience for the students at the CLC.
“I feel like I’ve taken away a lot more than I could ever give here, it’s such a great experience,” Anne says.
“No, no…you don’t know. You…you..learn..learned us a lot during this class,” Hassan replies.
“I what?” Anne laughs, reminding him to check his grammar.
“We learned a lot from you,” Hassan answers. “You speak very clearly…and very calmness. Especially to us. And all the time we think we have a good friend, not only a good teacher, a good friend.”
Anne is a former Peace Corps worker who spent time in Ecuador where she taught adult literacy. She has had a wide array of careers ranging from an assistant director of admissions for her alma mater, as well as an executive recruiter for the college — to an LPN after she went back to school to get her nursing certificate as a senior citizen.
She has been on disability since April 2015 due to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and fibromyalgia both of which she has had since she was 30. She is now 59 and not as able to cope with her conditions.
To keep busy, she decided to volunteer her time at the CLC since August and is now also volunteering at a local food pantry.
She often wears bright clothing, which coincide with her contagious laughter and permanent smile. Reading glasses are nestled in her short, chestnut-colored hair, until they are needed.
Aside from being a tutor at the CLC, language has played an important role in her life. Anne is from Marion, Ohio, a town that she usually introduces with “Have you ever heard of it?”Her father was a journalism professor at her alma mater, Marietta College. She studied Spanish there, and used to teach the language to preschool students.
Recently, she began a creative writing class at Wild Goose Creative, a nonprofit community arts organization in Columbus that offers education, resources, and space for local artists. A friend recommended that Anne go to show her work. “I think I’m going to be out of my league,” she says.
Her passion for language has both opened up doors for her, as well as the students she tutors at the CLC. Through conversations with Hassan and Sebat, she has learned about their culture and heritage, while simultaneously teaching them along the way.
Musa has lived in the United States since 2004, but her heart belongs to Liberia, where her family and the majority of her children live.
She and her husband have nine children altogether and only one is with her in the States. Her husband works as a nurse’s aide and she cleans rooms for a hotel.
She has studied English for several years and has come a long way from when she first started in Skill Book One, which she started working on in Akron, Ohio, where she was placed as a refugee a few years back.
When Musa came to the United States and went grocery shopping, she wasn’t able to read the prices of things, so she just bought what looked good. If she picked an item and asked the cashier how much it costs, they would sometimes take advantage of her. For example, if there were two prices, one was a sale price, and they tell her the one that was expensive.
She wouldn’t know the difference.
Aside from wanting to be able to properly grocery shop, she wants to help her daughter do her homework, so she comes to the CLC when she is in school.
“I want to be coming every day, even one hour. I learn something every time I come in here.” Musa’s husband can read English, so he can help when he returns from work, but she wants to be able to help their daughter on her own.
Musa tells Anne about a time at home when she and her daughter laughed as they tried to have a conversation in English. Her baby — as she calls her, who’s five years old — tells her not to speak “African.”
“I say, ‘but remember I’m African,’” Musa laughs.
Her main goal is to get her driver’s license. Since she cannot read, she cannot take the written portion of the test, nor can she read most street signs.
“I want to understand because I want to drive,” she said. “I have to know where I am going to turn, or where I am going to go.”
She carries the driver’s manual with her in her purse, and hopes that one day, she will be able to read it and understand. For now, she has been working on writing out portions of the book, like “bicycle laws,” one word at a time.
The Literacy Project & Rebecca Ritchey
In her pursuit to not only raise money for the CLC, Rebecca Ritchey is also raising awareness. She started The Literacy Project: a community of young professionals between the ages of 21–40 who raise money for literacy by attending charity events sponsored by bars and restaurants around Columbus.
To become a member of the Literacy Project, a person must serve on one or more of the committees such as events, marketing, membership, or volunteer, make an annual tax-deductible donation of at least $20, and volunteer or attend a minimum of two events per year. Currently, there are seven members, and Rebecca is the chair of the Young Professionals Board.
She is medium-height, very thin, and used to have the ends of her jet black hair dyed blue, which she recently changed to blonde. She talks quickly and has an air of confidence paired with a “get it done” personality, which has helped her in running her business, 61Forward: a marketing, managing, and consulting service for non-profits.
After over four years as a bank teller, she began to feel unhappy with her job. Though it was making her plenty of money, she still felt a lack of fulfillment. After she interned at the CLC as a social media manager, she realized that money was not as important as truly loving what you do and feeling as though you’re helping someone — so she went back to school and is now studying English at Ohio State.
Even though the CLC is in need of monetary donations — one of the top goals of The Literacy Project is raising awareness of the need for volunteer tutors. The members of the Literacy Project’s Young Professionals Club scope out trendy bars and local hangouts in order to find other young adults like them who may be interested in making a difference — whether that be through volunteering at the CLC, donating monetarily, becoming a member of the club, or just attending the events to raise awareness about the issue of literacy in the Columbus area.
Rebecca said the CLC has experienced a $100,000 cut from government funding — which is money that usually is allocated between general up-keep, administration, and supplies.
“Ideally they would have bigger facilities, better equipment and office upgrades,” she says.
Without that funding, the CLC is not only unable to grow its student and volunteer population, but it is also unable to put on more programs for the students. She added that the CLC has a gold star — meaning they are very transparent with their funds.
Sam aspires to go to college to become a teacher, and Musa hopes to drive. Literacy for them, and the other students at the CLC, is more than simply being able to read.
Literacy is a means to a better life for them and the people around them. Vilvi, Anne, and other tutors have decided to invest their time in serving their community, to help their students succeed and grow in their knowledge one word at a time…
by Alaina Bartel and Olivia Hamilton