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Read/Write/Now celebrates two decades

By Marie P. Grady Correspondent At 58, Luther Watson could be content with watching his grandchildren grow and reflecting back on all the challenges he faced along the way in a journey from Brookhaven, Miss., to Springfield, Mass. Instead, he is back at an adult literacy class in Springfield's Pine Point Library, seeking the high school equivalency diploma that eluded him amid the challenges of work and family. "It doesn't matter how old I get," Watson said in the deep southern drawl that lingers 30 years after he left Mississippi. "Each day I go there I'm learning." The program, called Read/Write/Now, celebrated its 20th anniversary last month. About 100 people, ranging from Springfield City Councilor William T. Foley, Library Commissioner Tim Moriarty to family members and former students, heard students read from an anthology of essays called "My Life So Far." Amid the cheers there were also tears. The stories, many recounting lives of poverty and growing up in fractured families here and abroad, are a testament to the challenges so many want to overcome. Janet Kelly, who started off as a part-time instructor before becoming program director in 1989, said some 2,000 students have graduated in the past two decades. When the program began, statistics showed that about 20,000 area adults were reading below a sixth-grade level. Instead of shrinking, Kelly believes those numbers have grown. Statistics show that programs like Read/Write/Now serve just five percent of the need statewide. Waiting lists for service in Hampden County exceed 400 people in cities such as Holyoke and more in Springfield. Orien Blake, a 29-year-old native of Jamaica, was on a waiting list for 10 months. To get here, he takes two buses from Holyoke and spends the hour or more trip studying. An ambitious young man who once convinced an employer to hire him by offering to work free for a week, Blake has leapt through beginning level courses and is on the path to earning his graduate equivalency diploma. But he knows ambition is not enough. He realized that if he could read better, "I could move mountains." Ana Leon, 34, has become a student leader since starting the program. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, she tries to connect others in the community with the opportunities presented by education programs. She knows that the challenges of life will force some to postpone their dreams after entering the program. She entered two years ago, had to leave and now is back, determined to get her GED and go on to college. She says instructors such as Michelle Faith Brown and the support of Kelly and others helped her not to give up. "If you don't get something, they just don't give up on you." That's a lesson she's also giving to her own two children, as she tries to encourage them to finish high school at a time when nearly half of students in Springfield and Holyoke don't graduate. Hayle McNeil, 43, started coming here from Jamaica to work on farms as a young man and, like Blake, is a legal resident. After suffering a serious back injury while working at a factory here, he could have spent the time resting at home waiting for reconstructive surgery. Instead, he is at Read/Write/Now trying to get his GED and go on to an electronics program at Springfield Technical Community College. Like the other students, he says staff inspire him to reach for more knowledge. In addition to Brown and Kelly, staff include teachers Kendra Edmonds, Barb Lavoie and Maria Mazzaferro along with program assistant Ginna Ondricek. Students also receive help from volunteers, including long-time tutors Jean Mathisen and Ondricek in daytime classes as well as Nicole Darden, Loretta Forsythe, Chip Lavoie, Marty Lind, Mary Luukko and Michele Morris in night classes. Mount Holyoke College students also provide volunteer assistance. The Springfield City Library has long supported literacy as a community goal. Emily Bader, director of the library system, is a member of the Hampden County Literacy Cabinet, a 21-member board of community leaders who believe literacy should be a top priority for policy makers. The library also runs a number of other programs designed to connect the community with learning, which are overseen by Jean M. Canosa Albano, manager of youth and outreach services. For Luther Watson, learning is one of those lifelong goals that doesn't dim with age or circumstance. It may have been put off along the way as he worked at jobs ranging from a baker at the closed A&P bakery off Plainfield Street to a Tyson Chicken plant down south to a cook at the closed Belchertown State School. And there are those who tell him that maybe it is all a waste of time. But still he plugs away, honing his skills by writing a collection of children's stories based on his life. "I love it. If you don't want to reach out and do it, you're not going to get it," he said. Sitting amid a stack of books in the Pine Point Library, Watson's face literally lights up with the joy of learning. Something tells me he has already gotten it, no matter how long it takes to get to his final destination. Marie P. Grady is liaison for the Literacy Works Project of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County Inc. She can be reached at 755-1367 or at mgrady@rebhc.org.

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