Learning for Life

Gorge Literacy pairs adult learners with volunteer tutors

Story and photos by Drew Myron

To improve her English, Esther Torres of Pine Grove, left, meets and chats with Connie Graham, a retired Parkdale Elementary teacher.

Youngsters aren’t the only students returning to school this fall. Adult learners are hitting the books, too, while also juggling families, jobs, and the challenge of learning new skills at an older age.

When Esther Torres first met her tutor, she arrived with shaky confidence and a thick manual of technical information she needed to master to pass an exam for her job.

With the help of Connie Graham— a tutor through Gorge Literacy—Esther passed the test and gained a friend. She continues to improve her reading, writing, and speaking skills.

Gorge Literacy, a free program offered by Columbia Gorge Community College, helps match adult learners with volunteer tutors.

“I wanted to learn English and speak better,” explains Esther, who lives in Pine Grove.

Esther emigrated from Mexico 25 years ago and has worked at Electronics Assemblers in Hood River for 17 years.

“It’s more difficult as an adult,” she says. “It’s hard when I pronounce something wrong, and when I try hard and it’s not right. The best thing is when I see Connie and we practice.”

Gorge Literacy provides free tutoring to any adult living within the college service area, which includes Wasco, Hood River, Gilliam, Sherman, Wheeler, Klickitat, and Skamania counties. College enrollment is not required.

Wendolyn Garcia, a student at Columbia Gorge Community College, is determined to do well in school. She meets weekly with a Gorge Literacy instructional aide.

Many adult learners are studying to earn a GED certificate, which requires a series of tests that demonstrate a high school level of education. Some students are learning English as a second or third language. Others want to improve their reading, writing or math skills to secure work, gain a promotion or feel more equipped to take college courses.

Many just want to better navigate a world that relies on written communication, according to Gorge Literacy Coordinator Matt Fitzpatrick.

Program participants are often immigrants, school dropouts, or adults who have difficulty learning, Matt says. Adult learners face numerous challenges, and the pressure of time can deter even the most eager student.

“I have so much compassion and empathy for the learners,” Matt says. “They are often working two jobs and going to school at night. Learning as an adult is not easy. I’m inspired that these learners are working to improve themselves. It takes courage to go back to places like libraries and classrooms—places where they’ve had negative experiences. I see a lot of hope and courage in these learners.”

Created in 2000, Gorge Literacy was shaped and developed by Susan Lewis, who served as the program coordinator for 10 years.

“We started with five tutors and a few books on a shelf,” she says.

Today, the program boasts 40 tutors who live throughout the Gorge, from Hood River to The Dalles and White Salmon to Goldendale. Tutors and students commit to meeting one-on-one at least once a week. Sessions last one to three hours and take place in quiet, public places, such as libraries, classrooms, or coffee shops.

The results, says Susan, can be profound.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I don’t want to be embarrassed in front of other people anymore. I don’t want to hide,’” she says. “If you teach someone to read, they’re going to start reading and asking questions and having opinions. Teaching someone to read can be a revolutionary force.”

Helping others feels good and usually empowers both student and tutor.

“It gives me pleasure and satisfaction to help these students,” says Mike Clement, a retired dentist who has tutored more than 10 learners. “Service gives meaning and purpose to life. I get great joy from helping others succeed.”

With an aptitude for math and science, Mike helps learners working to earn their GED certificates.

Gorge Literacy Instructional Aide Kelly Wiley, right, meets weekly with Wendolyn Garcia, a student at Columbia Gorge Community College. Photo by Drew Myron

“Sometimes it’s as hard for me as it is for them,” he says with a laugh. “I have to study also. I spend a lot of time preparing and doing the work because I want to get it right. I tell students, ‘Even with a tutor you still have to work.’ Learning is hard work. I heap congratulations on them for working to continue their education.”

Meeting weekly, Connie and Esther usually spend a lot of time talking. The mood is conversational, with frequent breaks to joke and laugh as Connie explains word pronunciations and meanings. Esther listens and repeats.

“I love working with people who are learning the language,” says Connie, a retired teacher who worked at Parkdale Elementary for 17 years.

A tutor since 2014, Connie speaks Spanish and has tutored students who speak Russian, Hungarian, Thai, Cantonese and Spanish.

Connie says Esther is the embodiment of perseverance.

“She’s a really dedicated person on all levels: family, work, and her education,” she says.

Esther turns shy with the compliment.

“I feel more comfortable now,” she says. “But I want to learn more.”

Tutors Needed

Gorge Literacy seeks volunteer tutors to help adults reach their reading, writing, and academic goals. No experience is required. Volunteers can make a difference with just a few hours each week. Share your love of learning while helping another improve their skills.

Adult Learners Wanted

Do you want to learn to read, write or improve your skills? Gorge Literacy offers free tutoring to any adult who lives in the Columbia Gorge. Contact Matt Fitzpatrick, Gorge Literacy coordinator, by calling (541) 506-6042 or emailing Matt.

Learn more at the Columbia Gorge Community College website.