Volunteer Opens New Worlds With Literacy Lessons

December 30, 1990|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Barbara Weisser has quite enough to do without taking on the world's problems. She's a mother of three, a housewife and a full-time college student.

But she's also a reader who can't imagine a life without understanding the power of the written word, she says.

So the Edgewood resident volunteers as a tutor in a literacy program at Harford Community College. Every week, she assists in a literacy class at Joppatowne Library, where she introduces county residents to the world of reading.

She also meets one-on-one in the home of one student who doesn't read but is too embarrassed or too shy to attend public classes.

The woman Weisser visits at home was diagnosed in second grade as as slow student and put in an "opportunity class." That was in the 1950s, and "all they did was weave paper strips together and more or less tread water until time to leave school," Weisser says.

The young woman learned to cut hair and took her licensing exam verbally with the help of a friend. Now she operates a small beauty shop.

"She's not handicapped mentally in any way, although perhaps she has a learning disability," Weisser says. "She struggles very hard. She works very hard, and we've become friends."

The student's goal was to be able to write to her daughter, who lives out of state. But she couldn't read or write. Weisser helped the woman write the letters and continues to work with her until the day the student is able to read and write without assistance.

"I like teaching adults because they want so much to be helped; they work so hard," says Weisser, who says she'd always dreamed of teaching. Her road to being a literacy tutor began with reading a newspaper advertisement.

"Can you read? Would you like to help others?" the advertisement asked.

She called the number for Project Literacy Plus, which referred her to a literacy program at Harford Community College.

In the college's program about 55 volunteers assist teachers in 10 group classes, along with the individual home tutoring, says Tynia Frye, a volunteer who coordinates the classroom volunteers.

Every week in the five years since Weisser made that phone call, she's helped out with the literacy class. Last year, she added home tutoring to her schedule.

"At the class, we have several students who are absolutely non-readers.

Some graduated from high school but do not read well, or feel they could do better if they brushed up on their skills. Some hope to learn to apply for jobs better," Weisser says.

Whatever the students' needs, the class tries to meet them. For example, if a student wants to learn how to fill out their own income tax forms, that's what they work on, Weisser says.

Ellen Slagle, instructor for the Adult Basic Education/General Educational Development class in which Weisser assists, says she couldn't conduct the class without Weisser's help.

"She does a super job, especially with the non-readers. Barbara is a very compassionate individual and she really cares about the students," Slagle says. "And she's a lot of fun. You have to be to succeed at this."

The twice-weekly class starts off with about 25 students every year and usually dwindles to about a dozen regulars, Weisser says. And, she says, several of the students in the class will probably never learn to read.

"They're severely learning disabled, but they try and they want to do it. Doing what they can is wonderful for their self-esteem," she says.

"Some people don't want anybody to know they can't read, or they just don't have enough confidence to attend a class. These people need private tutors," she says.

After five years of volunteering, Weisser has decided to become a certified literacy teacher. This fall, she went back to school full time in language arts at the college. She's a freshman -- at 42, "the world's oldest," she jokes -- along with her daughter, Bridget, who is studying engineering.

Weisser's oldest child is in her 20s and her youngest is 11.

"I'm a little old to start a new career, maybe. But I know I can do this, and I know I like it. A lot of students go to college and study and finish, and then say they hate it or really can't do it. At least I know what I want," Weisser says.

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