February 2, 2007

Literacy Changes Lives

Council on Literacy, which recently named a Latino CEO, has many programs for adult learners

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

Growing up in Jalisco with his grandparents after his mother died when he was barely four, Ramon Gomez didn’t have the opportunity to go to school.

The family used to move from rancho to rancho, from one side of Jalisco to another, looking for agricultural work, following the crops. Their main source of income was the cultivation of corn, something that gave them just enough money to eat and survive on a daily basis.

Ramon Gomez at the Carlsbad City Library Adult Learning Program.

“I didn’t have the economy to go to school,” said 44-year-old Gomez.

Without school, he never learned to read and write.

Looking for better opportunities, he migrated to the United States when he was only 15, but lacking basic literacy skills, he conformed to dead-end jobs.

“I used to work at McDonald’s, just to pay the bills,” he said.

Although he was able to learn English just by hearing it, he couldn’t get a better job because he couldn’t even read or write his own name.

“I lost many good opportunities because of this,” Gomez said.

At home, he couldn’t help his children with school work.

This made him feel worthless, ashamed of himself. His self-esteem was really low and he would drink alot.

“I used to feel like a blind man, walking without being able to see the road,” he said.

Until eight years ago, when he decided to change his life by looking for a adult literacy program that would teach him to read and write in English.

That’s how Gomez found the Carlsbad City Library Adult Learning Program, which is part of the San Diego Council on Literacy.

After long hours of hard work, spending a lot of time working with his tutor, making sacrifices in order to become literate, today Gomez can read and write.

He can read the labels on the chemicals he uses for his landscaping job. He can fill out contracts. He can write his own name with no problem. And best of all, he said, he’s been able to read chapters from The Bible, something that has helped him cope with his economic and personal issues.

“I never thought there were people who cared about my life like this,” he said. “But the literacy program I attend proved that there’s help out there.”

Now Gomez reads story books to his 3-year-old grandson.

“Instead of going to cantinas to drink, I’m going to school. Instead of spend all afternoon watching telenovelas, I’m studying a book,” he said. “I want to be a role model for my children and grandchildren.”

It’s stories like Gomez’s that have inspired Jose Cruz to continue working in favor of literacy in San Diego County.

“Ramon is not alone. This happens to a lot of our students. They used to feel isolated, embarrassed. Now they feel with power. It’s a miracle, very magical,” Cruz said.

That’s why in November Cruz was named chief executive officer of the San Diego Council on Literacy, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy resources and helps literacy programs interchange ideas and information.

“I’m really excited. I’m working for a good cause with a lot of good people,” he said.

One of the Council’s board members, Rosana Ortega, said she was excited to have Cruz as the Council’s CEO.

“I’m thrilled by it. He’s a pioneer at the Council and he’s been a very active advocate for literacy,” she said.

Board President David O’Brien shares her excitement.

“Our organization is fortunate to have a person like him. Literacy, not only in San Diego, but statewide, needs the understanding of a service provider like Jose. Literacy is not just about learning to read and write. Literacy transcends many issues. Jose understands that very well,” O’Brien said.

When it comes to literacy, Latinos are often disadvantaged, Cruz said.

More than half of all people using the Council’s services are Latinos, and about 65% are English-speakers.

“We’re targeting people that have limited access to the information that would direct them to the programs.”

Nationally, about 54% of Latinos and about 41% of African-Americans are at the lower level of literacy, he said.

“There’s a cycle of illiteracy in families,” Cruz said.

He said that the lowest level of literacy is anywhere from 0 to a 4th. grade level.

“There are many limitations when they go out to the work-force. Even if you work at McDonald’s you’re going to use technology, you’re going to have to read menus, recipes. Even these types of jobs require literacy skills,” Cruz said. He has several recommendations to encourage literacy at home:

“Parents should read to their children. They should surround children with books, get help with reading.”

He also invited parents to get involved in their children’s education.

“Go to your children’s school. Visit their teachers, talk to them,” he said.

Cruz, 51, was born in San Diego, grew up in Barrio Logan, and lived in Chula Vista from 1973 to 1994. He was the first member of his family to go to college. He graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in English and a teaching credential.

In 1985, he joined the adult literacy program,Program READ.

“I got hooked. When you see the impact that literacy has on adults and their whole families it is a wonderful thing to see.”

If you (or someone you know) need help with your reading, writing, or math skills, call the San Diego Council on Literacy’s Hotline at 1-888-850-READ (7323). There’s information available in Spanish as well.

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