Anniversary, tutors honored at banquet

Published 9:31 pm Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lenard Williams, 55, was poised and earnest as he described his struggles with illiteracy to a crowd of more than 30 people on Tuesday.

His school teachers in Richmond would have him draw out answers when he couldn’t write them down, rather than teach him properly, he said. Williams talked about how his parents would scold him because they just didn’t think he was trying hard enough.

“I just couldn’t catch on,” Williams said.

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He could only skim letters he received as an adult to grasp their messages, he said. He became a capable restaurant chef but still couldn’t read the menus.

He wanted to finally learn to read and write, he said, so he became a student with the Suffolk Literacy Council two years ago. His writing and reading skills have improved tremendously, along with his confidence, he said.

“When I first came, I was ashamed of it,” he said. “But I’m not ashamed anymore.”

He shared his story at the 30th Anniversary and Volunteer Appreciation Banquet held at the Planters Club in Suffolk on Tuesday. Board members, Suffolk Public Library representatives, city officials and more gathered to recognize the expanding programs and dedicated tutors of the Suffolk Literacy Council.

“Small victories add up to great accomplishments, and the Suffolk Literacy Council has done amazing things to serve others in the last 30 years,” Suffolk Social Services Director Azeez Felder said.

More than 50 volunteer tutors spend at least one hour per week in one-on-one reading and writing lessons with 92 active, adult students as of Tuesday, said tutor coordinator Jessica Reitz said. These tutors work to build trust with their students by understanding them as individuals.

“They bring a very intense passion,” Reitz said about her tutors. She said they want to make a difference through relationships and “real knowledge” so the students understand and sustain what they’ve learned in tutoring.

Tutors have also incorporated more math into their lessons in recent years. Students have benefited from a math lab at Paul D. Camp Community College since 2016, and 14 active tutors like Don Wittenauer focus primarily on teaching math.

“You’ve got to have this foundation of stuff that just pops into your head, like multiplication,” Wittenauer said. “Otherwise it slows you down.”

Tutors meet at the Suffolk Public Library and the Workforce Development Center with students of all languages, board president Robin Rose explained. Tutor Rick Vroman meets with staff at Plaza Azteca on North Main Street to improve their English.

Rose detailed the upcoming winter session follow-up to their popular summer camp, along with new programs planned for digital literacy and other essential skills to help them adapt to modern mediums of communication.

“We are continuing to make sure that the Suffolk Literacy Council makes an impact in the community,” she said.

Delegate Chris Jones, the organization’s first treasurer and the keynote speaker on Tuesday, praised the work of tutors at Western Tidewater Regional Jail and elsewhere to address the disturbing correlation between illiteracy and crime.

“You’re providing the key to a door for those that would be lost without words,” he said.

Williams was sharing a table at the banquet with Nelson Wilson, one of his tutors. Wilson described how they first met when Williams was cooking food for those in need at Suffolk Christian Church on North Main Street.

Wilson opened up to Williams about his own learning struggles growing up, creating a foundation of trust. Wilson described how much more confident Williams has become since they first met.

“I have every confidence that he’s going to do even better,” Wilson said.