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Community News: Southwest

JEFFERSON PARK : Learning to Read Is Their Salvation

November 20, 1994|ERIN J. AUBRY

For Jane Meyers, improving her reading and pronunciation skills this year has been nothing less than a spiritual experience.

"I was always running away from reading. . . . But the Lord kept showing it to me in dreams, in letters," said the vivacious 60-year-old. "Now my dreams have come true. The way I read now, it's a lot, lot better."

Meyers and dozens of semiliterate and illiterate adults like her have found a form of salvation through the literacy program at West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

For two years, the program--officially the West Angeles Literacy Empowerment Team, or WALET--has grown steadily to become one of the largest independent literacy programs in the city, aiding about 200 clients in Southwest and South-Central Los Angeles.

Perhaps the program's most remarkable attribute is its ability to flourish without a budget; WALET is staffed entirely by volunteers, led by project coordinator Gwen Thomas.

For Thomas, the program is a personal mission that quickly took shape in the aftermath of the 1992 riots. During a meeting with West Angeles pastor Charles Blake and other church members who brainstormed ways they could improve the community, Thomas was driven to her feet by a sudden inspiration.

"I thought, ' education ,' and then I thought, ' literacy ,' " said Thomas, a former IBM sales representative and now a business instructor at West Los Angeles College.

"I just stood up and said, 'I want to do this.' I had no experience at running any kind of program, but I deeply believe that the economic survival of African Americans is based on literacy."

With information gleaned from about 10 literacy programs she looked up in the Yellow Pages, Thomas assembled WALET with a core of about 10 volunteers in September, 1992.

Tutors are trained and certified through the Los Angeles Public Library Adult Reading Project. They spend three hours a week with students--called "readers"--for a minimum of six months, though Thomas said the amount of time varies greatly with skill levels.

"We work with not just reading skills, but living and social skills too," Thomas said. "Often readers have to come three times to a session to just get comfortable. It takes a long time for somebody to admit that they can't read."

Bobby Johnson, 37, was struggling along in his community college studies before discovering the West Angeles project and signing up with a tutor. Now, he says, he not only reads better but also feels far less constrained in daily conversations with friends and people he meets.

"I would be afraid to say things because my pronunciation and my comprehension wasn't good. I felt very limited because I had a third-grade reading ability," said Johnson, who suffered from epileptic seizures until corrective surgery last year.

"So people didn't realize what I had inside of me," he said. "I couldn't let it out. Now I can just talk without thinking. I really love that."

The group of volunteers has mushroomed to nearly 100 in two years, although the lack of an office forces tutors to meet students at local libraries, homes, restaurants--anywhere that's mutually convenient, Thomas said.

"Our headquarters is the Burger King on Crenshaw," she said, smiling.

But Thomas, who wears an air of confidence as easily as she wears her stylish suits, is nothing if not determined. She recently held her second successful Celebrity Reading, which featured producer/actress Debbie Allen and other entertainers in an event designed to raise literacy awareness.

She is also scouting around for temporary--preferably free of charge--WALET headquarters, though West Angeles is refurbishing a building that will have space in four years.

"Four years!" exclaimed Thomas, shaking her head. "Illiteracy is right now. It's growing. We can't wait that long."

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