Literacy Changes Lives

Notes from Berkeley Reads

Berkeley Reads is the Berkeley Public Library's adult literacy program, based at the West Branch on University Avenue. More than 100 trained tutors work with about 150 students each year, teaching them to read, write, work with computers and develop life skills. Here are a few Berkeley Reads success stories.
Elsie Blunt says she always wanted to read, but she grew up in a house without books. The few books she saw were "passed down from the white school" in Fort Necessity, Elsie's rural Louisiana hometown. And she only went to school six months a year. White children went for nine months, but the black children had to make sure the cotton was planted and picked.

Years later, still unable to read, she came to Berkeley Reads. "I was tired of being in the closet. Frightened that I'd be called upon to read. I was afraid people would take advantage of me because I couldn't understand what they were saying to me. Now I can look anyone in the face and feel okay.” Elsie particularly likes reading to her grandchildren. "I believed and I know, I'd put my life on it. If you read to a child at an early age, it makes a difference to him. The first I book I bought for my grandson was The Little Strawberry." Elsie recently finished reading a biography of Langston Hughes.

Leon Walker is the grandson of a sharecropper. He had problems with dyslexia and stuttering as a child,' but made his mark as a successful athlete.  "Leadership came naturally to me, but you have to have some other skills, like reading and spelling."

Leon always wanted to make more of himself. "I always want to challenge myself because I am my own worst critic –and I think I can do more and I push myself to do more. But things in my life crippled and delayed me." He came to the West Branch library looking for help with his taxes more than ten years ago and heard about Berkeley Reads. The program, he says, "made me feel more self confidence. I didn't feel like I was in prison within myself, I used to just read the stats of baseball and football players. Now I like to read the newspaper and the Bible. I got into real estate and bought my first home this year.   

I received my certificate to run a forklift for the city and county. I couldn't do that without the literacy program. I have my foot in now, the question is how far can I walk?" 

Jean Shields used to be able to read, but a stress related illness took away that ability. She was a social worker, with great responsibility, but, she says, "It took its toll. I turned to Berkeley Reads. I felt worthless. I could do budgets and contracts, but when it came to understanding the total contract, I couldn't and I couldn't write well enough to do proposals." Jean was so embarrassed by her inability to read and comprehend that she carried books with her in public and pretended to read them. "On the bus, I knew I looked very important and others wouldn't think I'm stupid if I'm reading a book, if I'm holding a book. That I was educated. And it was very important to me to be educated and that's how I felt about taking a book." It was difficult for Jean to ask for help, but she did. "It was hard to admit, like coming out of the closet and admitting I had a problem."

Jean is now the student advocate for Berkeley Reads. She recently participated in the community reading of Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.

Llano Sopa and her husband had a small shop in Tibet before they came to the United States in 1989. "Before I came here I didn't know how to speak or read English. My dream was to be able to look at my schedules, to fill out the forms, to be able to write my date of birth. We needed to survive and work. Even in stores I couldn't read the expiration date on eggs. I went in lots of exits an pulled on doors that said ‘Closed'. Then, when you go shopping, they say put in the credit card and press the digits. I didn't know how." Llamo has been working with tutors at Berkeley Reads for seven years.

"Now I go shopping alone. I pick up my children, drop off my children because I can read the directions, the parking signs. There's a computer class and I search for jobs.

Berkeley Reads has made me so proud. My Tibetan friends and my husband are shocked at what I'm doing. I got a second life!" 

These inspiring stories reflect the powerful impact that the Berkeley Public Library has on our community. In addition to Berkeley Reads, the Berkeley Public Library provides free access to a vast array of books, resources, and tools that guide, inspire, entertain, and enlighten.

If you would like to continue to support and enhance the Berkeley Public Library and its resources and programs, please refer to our enclosed remittance envelope and send your donation today.

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