Making strides — literally

NEWPORT BEACH — Give him a blueprint, and he says he can read it lickety split.

Give him a book, however, and that's a different story.

But Claude Bonham, 56, is trying.

The Costa Mesa resident was singled out and honored Thursday by the Newport Beach Library Literacy Program, which during the past three years has brought Bonham up to a second-grade reading level.

The program, with its army of tutors and career teachers, has also taught him how to carry out the financial practicalities of life — balancing a checkbook, using a debit card at the grocery store and withdrawing cash from an ATM.

He can even log onto a computer and check his e-mail.

It's the sort of stuff that many take granted, but it's completely different to those who live in a world where words appear as garbled ink on a page and numbers sometimes are just as confusing.

"There are things that I just never learned to do and was never able to do," said Bonham, who earns $34 an hour as a specialty aircraft painter for Boeing in Long Beach, where the latest contract is painting camouflage color onto military aircraft.

"But I'm starting to learn how to read," he added. "I'm still having problems with some of the big words, though."

Although Bonham, the son of a tool and die maker, went to school in Bedford, Mich., ever since elementary school, he said, he was placed in a special education program where he learned very little while studying alongside students who were either afflicted with fevers associated with polio or had some other form of developmental disability.

"I just got stuck in one place, and each year I kept going back and never really learning anything," said Bonham, who eventually dropped out of Bedford High School his senior year, then joined the workforce at a factory.

One job led to another, which brought him to California. He worked as an auto mechanic before landing a job with Boeing, where he has since worked his way up the ladder, perfecting his skill as a painter of aircraft.

"I came to California on God's wings," said Bonham, trying to describe, geographically and logistically, how exactly he got from Michigan to Southern California. "And when I got here, I told Him, 'I've got the tools; just give me the full guns.'"

But something was always missing, which is where the literacy program entered the picture.

Each week for three years, Bonham was tutored one on one and paid special attention to, said Cheryall Weiss, the program's literacy coordinator.

He's just one of some 180 students who have learned how to read and write and perform essential daily tasks, Weiss said.

"He's an amazing story," Weiss said.

Renée Hoffman-Heath agrees. She's the daughter of Rochelle Hoffman, after whom Bonham received the coveted Rochelle Hoffman Memorial Award at Thursday's ceremony. It took place in front of a crowd of almost 100 people at the Central Library branch on Avocado Avenue, which houses the literacy program.

"He's phenomenal," said Hoffman-Heath of Bonham. "To think of the things we struggle with on a daily basis and then to compare it to people like Claude. It just blows my mind. It's great to see where they begin and then to see them come through the other side, finally making it. It's an inspiration."

Which is what Hoffman-Heath's mother, Rochelle, was to her.

"She was a tutor and a teacher her whole life," said Hoffman-Heath.

She taught English and French literature along with theater at Chapman University before she died at the age of 64 of non-smoking lung cancer, said Hoffman-Heath, an opera singer and voice teacher.

As for Bonham, he's happy to have the framed certificate in hand with Rochelle Hoffman's name inscribed within.

His ultimate goal is to read and finish a book.

"I'm going to keep coming here, and I'm going to keep going," Bonham said.

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