Welcome! Read the latest issue of PROGRESS, featuring civics programs in Virginia. Read PROGRESS

Life, Literacy, & Happiness at Loudoun Literacy Council

by Lauren Gordon

“It takes an army of volunteers and scores of fresh troops each year to keep our myriad literacy programs running smoothly.”

Our  lives have changed significantly over the last year and a half and will continue to change as we turn the corner on the pandemic. But what hasn’t changed is Loudoun Literacy Council’s commitment to ending illiteracy in Loudoun County, Virginia—to bring about a community where everyone has the literacy resources to achieve their personal, educational, and professional goals.

Unfortunately, 130,000 northern Virginia adults function at the lowest literacy level. Thirty-two thousand report that they do not speak English well. Our mission is to teach English communication skills and provide literacy resources to low-income adults and children to empower them to become self-sufficient and confident. We do this through providing year-round English classes and individual tutoring for adults, basic life skills, GED® and citizenship preparation, and financial, health, and jobsite literacy.

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Loudoun Literacy Council had reached 40 years of serving the community. But even with a long-standing track record, nothing fully prepares an organization for the unprecedented challenges brought about by the pandemic. Our non-profit organization, however, responded quickly and effectively to bring online instruction to our learners. Teachers and students transitioned to virtual meeting (Zoom) and collaborative (Google Classroom) platforms. In the summer of 2021, when the public libraries and community centers re-opened their doors, we were able to resume in-person classes. We have continued to be flexible and responsive to our adult learners’ needs by conveniently providing both in-person and online classes. We offer year-round classes: fall, spring, and summer sessions with classes ranging from 9–12 weeks.

This fall, demand for English as a second language (ESL) classes was stronger than ever. To illustrate, pre-pandemic we served 315 adults. Now, during the first quarter of our current fiscal year starting July 1, 2021, we are serving 410 adults. Also during the pandemic, we expanded our offerings to include Stepping Stones to Literacy, a program intervention designed to provide bi-lingual literacy to pre-literate English learners. All classes and instructional materials are free of charge and this latest step supports our goal to develop and deliver stellar programming that engages our participants and aligns with the needs of the communities we serve.

Unique to Loudoun Literacy Council is a strong partnership with the local business community. Our Jobsite Program offers work-focused English instruction for a variety of employers. Customized training takes place conveniently at the work site and is scheduled around employees’ shifts. By improving the communication skills of employees, Loudoun Literacy Council provides these employers with tangible benefits such as better customer service, lower employee turnover, greater productivity, and a safer workplace. Employees who participate have an increase in job satisfaction and often experience more internal promotions as a result of their studies.

Another creative program is our School  Success program, which helps non-English speaking parents at Loudoun County Public Schools to better communicate with their children’s teachers and school staff, as well as navigate the school system. The program is guided by a robust set of research data that indicates low-literate parents are more likely to exert a positive influence on their child’s academic success when they are able to enhance their own literacy skills. This program was a lifeline to so many parents supporting their children’s virtual learning during the COVID-19 crisis.

It takes an army of volunteers and scores of fresh troops each year to keep our myriad literacy programs operating smoothly. We also offer teacher training workshops every other month, both in-person and online, to ensure a continuous flow of new teachers and tutors. Veteran volunteer teachers sometimes serve as mentors to new volunteers. New volunteers often observe, shadow, or assist experienced volunteers in the classroom to gain experience and build their self-confidence.

In FY 2021, 249 volunteers provided 2,753 hours of service to support the organization and its mission. We provided 112 hours of training to 103 volunteers. All of our teachers are volunteers and they are the lifeblood of our literacy programs. We provide the sup- port and materials volunteer teachers need to succeed and all we require is patience, perseverance, and the genuine desire to help those who struggle with the written and spoken word.

Volunteer adult literacy instructors gain tremendous reward from helping those in need as well as learning about others’ cultures and backgrounds. Volunteer instructors, such as Kathleen Salter, state that they “get far more from their students than they actually give.” Instructor, Jackie Ly says, “It takes a village to uplift our community in these challenging times, and Loudoun Literacy Council is doing just that through community partnerships and with local businesses, schools and other service providers.” Others such as Kelly Smith-Moore talk about “how meaningful and interesting it is to teach students from all over the world.”

The impact of Loudoun Literacy Council’s programs on the lives of immigrants and refugees in Loudoun County has been tremendous. Seeing adults improve their literacy skills is at the heart of our mission, and it is gratifying to hear testimonials from many of our ESOL students who have successfully gone through our ESOL programs. Abderrazaq Mihamou, a student originally from Morocco, stated, “Loudoun Literacy’s English classes have helped me improve my English communication skills so I can volunteer with youth in my community.” Stephane Rhanatamalala, a student originally from Madagascar who took our online classes maintained, “I’ve become better in my listening and speaking since I started your courses. I’m more confident speaking with others. I perform better in my jobs as a bus attendant and cashier, since I can understand others. In my personal life, I can have discussions with neighbors, friends, and coworkers. I appreciate your English program. Thank you, Loudoun Literacy.

Lauren Gordon

Lauren Gordon is a program assistant in the Adult Literacy Program at Loudoun Literacy Council in Leesburg, Virginia. Prior to joining Loudoun Literacy, she taught for 19 years in both Fairfax and Loudoun County public schools.