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Groups push literacy causes

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By Don Pace

Most people take such things for granted — reading stories to their children, ordering a meal from a menu, understanding road signs and even completing a job application.

The fact is that 46 percent of adult New Mexicans can’t read, and in San Miguel County, the figure rises to 59 percent.

The Leap for Literacy Fair held recently at the city’s recreation center is just one of a number of events that a coalition of community organizations, schools and business people are organizing to try to put a dent in these statistics.

Tome on the Range, United World College and The Literacy Council of Northern New Mexico held their first literacy conference at the UWC in September, followed by Arts Celebrate Literacy Day at the Tome bookstore, and the most recent Leap for Literacy Fair. The fourth event will be Dia de los Niños scheduled for April 18 at Plaza Park.

One of the interesting displays at the Leap for Literacy Fair was a display created by UWC students where visitors walked through a tent with elaborate writings in Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Hebrew and Arabic. The intent was to show people in a real way what those who can’t read face in their daily lives — in other words, a jumble of letters and characters as foreign to those who don’t speak another language as English is to the illiterate among us. 

Tome on the Range owner Nancy Colalillo said, “This is the first of what we hope will be an annual literacy fair; the planning for this has been going on for a year. We are just trying to shed light on the fact that in San Miguel County there is a 59 percent illiteracy rate, which is really pretty amazing. In New Mexico, one in five people are functionally illiterate, and it’s not just children, so we are trying to shed light that there are people who do have problems and we want to let them know that the Northeastern Literacy Council is one of the things that has come out of this, and are taking the lead in providing literacy services for people.”

Colalillo said people should remember to thank a teacher because learning to read is not a natural event like learning to speak, and something that really takes being taught by dedicated teachers.

“Some of the games that are being played at the Leap for Literacy Fair are ways to let parents know that learning doesn’t have to be a tedious affair and that there are ways to work with children, with numbers and words, that can be fun and doesn’t have to seem like it’s homework. Parents are the first ones who notice if their child is having a problem,” Colalillo said.

Help is right around the corner for those who may need tutoring, The Literacy Council is working on putting together classes for community members who want to turn their lives around by learning to read.

“It’s been a dream of ours to restart a literacy council and have been working for a number of months on this, a literacy fair is a wonderful way to promote a newly formed council. Right now, we are interested in recruiting tutors and will be having tutor sessions in March. Once we have tutors, then we will start classes for those who need that service. The other organizations I belong to, the Women’s Club and AUW are very focused on literacy issues, and we often donate books and other learning materials within the community,” Maestas said.

Carol Winkel, also a member of The Literacy Council, said tutor classes are scheduled for two Saturdays next month,  March 14 and March 21, at Faith Hall. She said anyone wishing to volunteer as tutors may call Tome on the Range at 454-9944. 

UWC student from France Sidney Saubestre was one of many volunteers from the college reading stories from their home countries and managing a host of booths offering many educational and fun games.

“What we are trying to show is that there are different levels of literacy all over the world, and that the United States is very privileged in terms of their education. And what this is all about is, not only to show the different cultures of the world, but also to have kids appreciate how important it is to read. We have a lot of students who come from countries where there’s not a lot to people that can read — we have a student from Afghanistan and the fact that girls read there is incredible. So for a lot of students this is something that is very pertinent to their own countries and they really want to show that we are privileged here to have an opportunity at education and we should appreciate it,” Saubestre said.

UWC Vice President Adriana Botero said during the arts festival at Tome last semester, her students along with the bookstore staff dreamed up the Leap for Literacy Fair.

“We put it together with the cooperation of so many different people from the community through the schools, businesses and other organizations and our literacy services department at the college has been helping me, and is made up of students who have come up with great ideas. They have enjoyed working with the community and they love it, and they like partnering up with people from town — not just coming into the city and doing things for people, but really working with the community,” Botero said.

When people are illiterate, they face an uncertain future: poverty, unemployment and dead ends. Statistics show adult literacy students often make big changes in their lives as their abilities improve and the numbers also support the effectiveness of volunteer-based, one-to-one tutoring. This past year, one in five of those adult literacy students on public assistance are now independent.

Just about every elementary, middle and high school in town also took part in the literacy fair including Highlands University and Luna Community College, and author Ruth Kahn read many of her own stories throughout the afternoon.