Sixteen years ago, Joe Saenz graduated from Banning High School. He couldn't read, so getting through school was a struggle.
He said he cheated quite a bit and knew just enough to get by.
Today, Saenz, 34, is back in class, learning to comprehend the words that he could recite but could not understand when he was at Banning.
Saenz, who is functionally illiterate, is enrolled in a literacy program at the Wilmington branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.
After nearly a year of tutoring under Coast Guard Lt. Thomas A. Jarrad, Saenz has raised his reading comprehension from the seventh- to about the 10th-grade level. He has applied for a job using skills that once were beyond his reach. Most important, perhaps, he is confident that he can learn to read and write.
Long Waiting Lists
Saenz is lucky. He is one of about 500 adults who have found spaces in South Bay programs for the illiterate. Waiting lists for these programs are long, and the need is growing, officials say.
The total number of adult illiterates in the South Bay is hard to determine, according to Los Angeles school officials, but they believe the number is in the thousands.
In all, about 1 million adults in Los Angeles County and 2.5 million statewide are considered functionally illiterate, or unable to use basic reading, writing and computing skills in everyday situations, according to California State Library statistics.
In the South Bay, more than 200 people are waiting to join literacy programs, library officials say. City and county libraries and nonprofit groups are trying to offer help, but problems, including a shortage of volunteers, have prevented them from keeping up with demand.
Adult Reading Project
"The problem is more dramatic now," said Suzanne Johnson, project coordinator for the city library system's Library Adult Reading Project, one of several state and local programs set up in 1984, when the state launched a program to combat adult illiteracy.
Years ago, she said, "America was primarily a manufacturing country . . . and you could get by without reading skills. But that isn't true any longer."
Natural attrition is partly to blame for the shortage of volunteer tutors.
"The tutors and students come for a period of time, and they leave because their lives are tenuous and they have to move," said Paula Hendrich, president of the South Bay Literacy Council. Her organization has 127 tutors.
Johnson said the Wilmington library program also has lost both tutors and students. "We had 20 active tutor-student pairs and now it has dropped to between 10 and 15," she said. "We lost some because half have graduated and tutors have relocated."
63 on Waiting List
The 11 tutors in the county library program in the Carson program are already outnumbered by 32 students. Sixty-three people are on the waiting list there, said Marilee Marrero, literacy coordinator for the Los Angeles County Public Library, which runs programs at 14 branches.
Although literacy programs lack tutors, they have been able to gain funds for textbooks and other materials. About $500,000 from the California Library Services Act has been earmarked for the Los Angeles County and City libraries' services for adult illiterates.
The federal government's Adult Basic Education Division and the Los Angeles Unified School District have provided more than $2.5 million for anti-illiteracy and other adult-education programs.
Marrero said county library administrators would like to expand services in the South Bay beyond Carson, which is the only county program in the area.
"Certainly the South Bay is an area that is not being served well right now (by the county), so we may be looking at other areas," Marrero said. "There are certainly people who need services."
Her concern is echoed by Johnson, whose city library project operates literacy programs at 10 branches.
Literacy Council Programs
Other adult-illiteracy programs are offered through the South Bay Literacy Council, an affiliate of the nonprofit Laubach Literacy Action Inc., which serves about 200 adult illiterates at community and church centers in Wilmington, Gardena, Hawthorne, Lomita, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills Estates, San Pedro and Torrance.
Council volunteers also offer individual tutoring in Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Playa del Rey, said council president Hendrich.
In both library and council programs, volunteers must be able to read and write at the 12th-grade level, complete a 12-hour training session and commit themselves to working with a student either long enough to complete a prescribed goal such as learning to fill out a job application, or long enough to teach the student to read and write.
Volunteers work with the students one-on-one. Some volunteers help more than one student.
"A lot of people volunteer because of the immediate reward of helping other people," said Johnson of the city library project.