Library’s literacy program seen as lifeline

Most area residents can only imagine the disadvantages of being unable to speak, read, and write in English; however, for many, that inability threatens their chance to live a productive, independent life.

Teacher Kristy Ibarra is shown with her level 2 ESL students.

Teacher Kristy Ibarra (standing)  is shown with her Level II English as a Second Language students during an evening class at Kennett High.

Nearly half of the Kennett Square Borough population is Hispanic or Latino with the vast majority having emigrated from Mexico, according the 2010 U.S. census. And many have struggled with the language barrier.

Since 1979, the Adult Literacy Program (ALP), located downstairs in the Kennett Public Library, has been offering English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and tutoring to the community. To date, it has served more than 6,500 adult learners from more than 50 countries. Yet, despite countless success stories, the program faces its own challenges.

In addition to a constant need for volunteers, the ALP is presently operating in the red. Bill McLachlan, the library board’s treasurer, said that changes in state requirements for funding literacy programs changed in 2012 and that the library did not have the resources to add the components that would have fulfilled the regulations.

“Thankfully, United Way continued to fund adult literacy as it has to this day, but the program needs additional funding,” he said, adding that his wife worked as an instructor in the program for 17 years. “We are committed to explore other community funding possibilities during 2016 as our new board is dedicated to the program and the value it has to offer.”

Volunteer Tom Cosgrove (center), a retired chemist,

Tom Cosgrove (center), a retired chemist, works with Maria Merced López (left) and Lorena Zavala on GED preparation and citizenship.

The board is not alone. Unlike many programs that rely on volunteers, the Adult Literacy Program does not suffer from turnover, said Filomena Elliott, who became the program director in January. Instead, it offers such a rewarding opportunity that some volunteers stay for years, often increasing their responsibilities. However, they can’t keep up with the demand for the services. Right now, about 60 students are on a waiting list, Elliott said.

“It’s a wonderful program,” said Elliott, who speaks from firsthand experience.

Elliott said her family moved to the U. S. from Italy when she was 8, settling in Kennett Square, so she was familiar with the library. At the time, she didn’t know that the family was living in a home later purchased by Tom Swett, who began his second stint as president of the library board in January, marking one of many serendipitous connections the library has fostered.

After graduating from college with a teaching degree, Elliott volunteered for three years as a tutor in the Adult Literacy Program, even after she started working full-time in the West Chester Area School District. She said her background as an immigrant gave her valuable insight into the students’ needs.

The student in the polka-dot top is Student Arizbeth Escobar (left) work with volunteer Janice Mahan, who is also a violin teacher.

Student Arizbeth Escobar (left) works with volunteer Janice Mahan, who is also a violin teacher.

When Elliott retired after 35 years, she was the department chair of the World Languages Department at Henderson High, having taught Spanish, French and Italian. She returned to the library last year to “help out,” timing that coincided with the former director’s exit and led to a full-time position, she said.

“I really was in the right place at the right time,” Elliott said. “And I was so grateful to have one of our success stories to assist me.”

That person is Lupe Ruiz, the ALP assistant, who came to Kennett Square from Mexico in 1993 with a 5th-grade education. She said that situation is typical for many Mexican immigrants because after fifth grade, education is no longer free. Ruiz began coming to the Adult Literacy Program in 2002 and never left.

By 2005, Ruiz had her GED, had become a U.S. citizen, and was teaching others. Last year, she earned a certificate to be a translator. “I love what I do,” said Ruiz. “It’s different every day. Plus, I know what it’s like for many of these students since I came from the same town in Mexico.”

Elliott said Ruiz’s institutional knowledge is vast. “She knows everybody as well as details about their situation,” said Elliott. “We call her the database.”

Ruiz and Elliott both said that the one-on-one tutoring enables volunteers to get to know their students and tailor lessons to them, whether they need help with making doctors’ appointments or finding a job. The pairs meet at mutually convenient locations, which can range from the library to a restaurant to someone’s home.

Teacher Spencer Gates teaches Level 3 students during an evening class as Kennett High School.

Teacher Spencer Gates (standing) teaches Level 3 students during an evening class at Kennett High School.

Betsy Del Vecchio, a recent addition to the library board, said she and her husband both volunteered in the Adult Literacy Program.

“What I thought was so valuable was not only the positive impact on the individual being tutored and their success in the community, but also the positive impact on their family members,” Del Vecchio said.

Del Vecchio recalled that her husband developed a strong relationship with the family of his student, and he assisted their daughter in writing her letters and essays to get into college.  He also helped his student's husband with coursework that led to a job promotion.

“His student's English-speaking skills improved to the point that she was able to get a job and help support the family,” Del Vecchio said.

Carol McLachlan shared similar sentiments about volunteering in the program. “For me, the day I encountered a student from China and a student from Mexico sitting in a restaurant together eating lunch and conversing in English was a wonderful day for me as their instructor,” she said.

McLachlan pointed out that the ability of people to learn to speak English builds confidence, increases workplace productivity, and provides people the opportunity to find better employment and to thrive not only economically but socially as well.

“This is a benefit, not only to the learners themselves, but to the community,” she said.  “The learners and their families are able to buy more goods, take advantage of more services, pay taxes, and live cohesively and successfully in the community. This all is much more difficult without ESL classes such as the ALP.”

Teacher Matt Di Filippo works with level 1 students at Kennett High School.

Teacher Matt Di Filippo (rear) works with Level 1 students at Kennett High School.

McLachlan suggested looking around the community to see the benefits of the ALP. “La Michoacana Ice Cream Shop, The Hong Kong Buffet, Las Alondras bakery, La Peña, and Taqueria Moroleon are just some of the successful businesses started by former ALP students,” she said.

The ALP offers day classes, evening classes, and a computer Language Lab class. A vital component of the program is the one-to-one volunteer tutoring. Elliott said the volunteers, who currently range in age from 17 to 90, receive three hours of training and work 1 to 1 ½ hours a week with each student, frequently becoming their “mentor, champion, cheerleader, and friend.”

“The tutors come from all walks of life, which is wonderful,” Elliott said. “They often become part of their students’ family.”

The library provides the training, and the volunteers are given appropriate educational materials to use with their student. No foreign language ability or teaching experience is required, and the hours are flexible and are set by the tutor and student, Elliott said.

For those who want to do more, tutor Tom Cosgrove could provide inspiration, said Elliott. A retired Du Pont chemist who spent time in Spain with the military, he has logged 120 volunteer hours since September.

“He has done so much,” said Elliott. “He goes above and beyond. It’s truly wonderful.”

To volunteer, call the Adult Literacy Program office at 610-444-9118 or contact Elliott at For more information about the Adult Literacy Program, visit the library website at and click on Adult Literacy.




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