Apodaca: When words take on real meaning

For most of her life, Judi Treble had trouble reading, the byproduct of a difficult childhood.

By the time she graduated from high school, she had attended 13 schools and had stalled at a sixth-grade reading level.

Treble managed to earn an associate's degree in early childhood education, and has worked in the field for most of her professional career.

Now 58, the Newport Beach resident acknowledges that her reading deficiency held her back.

"I didn't have the confidence to go on," she said. "I didn't have the basic background. I take care of children, but I think, what if? What if I'd had a good basic education? I could have gone on to be a doctor."

But Treble wasn't satisfied with letting all those what-ifs go unanswered. About five years ago, she spotted an ad in the Daily Pilot for the Newport Beach Public Library's Literacy Program, and she signed up.

Treble began taking classes and meeting regularly with a volunteer tutor. Her reading level has improved so dramatically that she now writes short stories.

"I feel a lot freer than I did before," she said. "I'm starting to set goals for myself."

It's been 25 years since Irvine-based author Carol Hazelwood jumpstarted the fledgling Literacy Program, and since then it has quietly forged ahead with its mission of improving lives.

That the program has survived and even flourished in an inhospitable financial climate is testament to the dedication of the many selfless supporters who stubbornly refuse to let this important service suffer.

One of them is my friend and neighbor Nancy Englebrecht, a Newport Beach real estate agent who has donated her time and energy to the literacy project for several years.

Nancy urged me to speak to Cherall Weiss, who gave up a lucrative career in commercial finance five years ago to run the literacy program. As the library's literacy coordinator, she is one of two part-time staffers devoted to the program. An army of more than 100 volunteers does the rest of the work, including one-on-one tutoring, classroom instruction and group activities.

Despite the pay cut, Weiss said, she has no regrets about her career change.

"This is so much more fulfilling," she said.

Most of us take our ability to read for granted, but Weiss finds there's no shortage of potential students even in our relatively affluent area.

An estimated 350,000 to 400,000 people have unacceptable levels of literacy in Orange County, she said.

I wondered if pride gets in the way of adults seeking help for their reading issues, but Weiss assured me that people "come begging" for help once they learn about the library services.

The program, which receives some public funding but relies heavily on donations, provides free tutoring to 150 to 200 students — Weiss calls them "learners" — every year.

She told me about one student, now in his 50s, who had graduated from high school even though he could barely recognize letters.

"That happens all the time," she said. "About the second or third grade, he was identified with learning difficulties. He was put in a handicapped class and pushed ahead without doing anything."

Thanks to the literacy program, the man has now experienced many firsts: voting, reading a restaurant menu and filling out hospital forms.

In addition to learning disabilities that go unaddressed, reading problems also stem from a wide range of economic, social and personal issues, Weiss said.

Poor reading skills tend to perpetuate through families; children with parents who don't read are twice as likely to have literacy problems.

And though many students are immigrants, Weiss stressed that the program only accepts those who are conversant in English.

One student, for instance, immigrated here legally from Peru when she was a young woman, but was held back by poor reading skills and could find only menial work. She went through the program, became a citizen, and now works as a certified public accountant.

Weiss said she believes her job extends to helping people become more successful in all aspects of their lives. The results are constantly surprising and "really cool," she said, such as when a group of students decided to get together to help clean up the Back Bay.

Hazelwood, who started it all, will soon retire from her position on the Literacy Program's executive board, but she plans to continue teaching.

The program's success "is all due to the volunteers we've got, and the learners we've got are amazing," she said. "If they don't make you want to stand up and cheer, there's something missing in your DNA."

Cheering is exactly what Treble, the childcare worker, heard at the group's annual fundraising luncheon earlier this month. Standing before more than 100 supporters, including Newport Beach Mayor Mike Henn, the Literacy Project student received a rousing ovation when she announced that she is now training to become a tutor herself.

She said she's excited about the prospect of teaching others who have struggled with reading.

"Helping someone else will help me become better." No one could write a better ending than that.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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