Columbus has a special program that isn’t widely known but has been helping people for more than 30 years.
The Columbus Literacy Council, a group started by former Columbus School District Superintendent Dick Mortimer, began in the mid-1980s. It’s volunteer-based and the only regional literacy council outside of Madison. Volunteers meet with students every week to teach them how to read, write and speak in English.
The group, led by Mary Lou Sharpee, a retired reading specialist, holds sessions at the Columbus Public Library and its Annex building. The council has 22 adult volunteers and two high school students. Sharpee said the group is looking for more students and volunteers. It currently has about 22 students so each instructor can match-up one-on-one with each student.
“There was a push about 30 years ago for adult literacy help,” Sharpee said. “A movie came out about a man who worked in a factory and couldn’t read and the pain that came with that.”
On a recent day at the Annex, volunteer Merry Anderson met with Yudisley Cabanzo Wiedmann, a student who moved to Columbus from Columbia in 2016. Weidmann enjoys meeting with Anderson every week to not just learn English, but also aspects of American culture. In return, Anderson discovers something new about her student’s homeland every session.
“I can’t really call her a student because I learn from her just as much as she learns from me,” Anderson said.
The council also teaches ESL (English as a second language), helps people who are developmentally challenged, and young children who need extra help with reading and writing.
“What often happens is the mother will come and want to work with us to get help with English and she’ll say, ‘I’m concerned about my son,’’ Sharpee said. “We then move into that situation. We’re very adaptable. It can be as simple as helping them fill out forms for school. When you’re not a native English speaker, it can be very difficult.”
The length of each session varies, but instructors typically spend about an hour once a week with each student.
“You really develop relationships with these students,” Sharpee said. “It’s amazing how quickly the connection happens.”
Anderson said the English language can be challenging. A text book can present a grammatically correct way to say a phrase, but with slang, it’s often said differently in everyday life.
Through their work, the volunteers have seen students develop literacy skills and more confidence in reading and writing.
“When you see them having trouble filling out a form and they’re struggling, it’s not that they don’t want to do it, they might not understand what the words mean,” Sharpee said. “That often leads to embarrassment and they sort of go into a shell, thinking they can’t do it.”
Anderson said students come to sessions willing to learn and are “like sponges.” It can also be a rewarding experience to volunteers as well. Working with Wiedmann, from Columbia, Anderson sometimes spends the hour engaging her in conversation so she gains confidence using English.
“You have a lesson plan, but sometimes you just gauge where they’re at and just sit and talk so they’re comfortable doing something like this,” Anderson said.
Looking ahead, the council wants to work with local industries to help employees with literacy skills.
For more information about the literacy council, contact the library at 920-623-5910.