Adult literacy ‘raises all boats together’

CGCC unites people who love to learn

When you meet Rene Santillan, his brilliant smile and friendly nature might easily hide his previous struggles with mastering English. With two and a half years of adult literacy training now completed through Columbia Gorge Community College, Santillan is no longer shy about talking about his future.

“I hope to become a law enforcement officer in the forest service,” said Santillan, now a successful CGCC student and continuing Gorge Literacy program participant.

“One of the hardest parts for learners getting started is just finding the courage to come and ask for help in the first place,” said Shayna Dahl, CGCC Adult Literacy coordinator. “Our learners are very courageous individuals who have decided the time is now to tackle what may be one of their biggest obstacles to reaching their educational, employment and overall life goals.”

To reach those goals, Gorge Literacy staff matched Santillan with literacy volunteer Ted James, a retired financier and artist who now makes his home in Hood River.

“I really believe in ‘whole-person literacy,’” said James, who meets with Santillan once or twice a week. The two work on traditional reading and writing, but also study literature in both English and Spanish along with exploring current news, philosophy and practical life skills.

In his work with James, Santillan recognizes that he has made great strides in reading, writing and college study skills, enabling him to master the steps on the path to his dream career. He admits he has learned in other ways as well.

“I learned to put myself in someone else’s position — to think through a problem until I find a solution,” said Santillan.

James chuckles at hearing his own rigorous approach to life being returned through Santillan’s embrace of the concepts.

James became a literacy tutor just over two years ago, when Santillan became his first student. The two have since shared much more than homework.

“I believe it is important to give a person tools to discover wisdom; not just to become scholarly, but to become learned,” said James. “I also believe that helping others works best through companionship.”

“I really feel happy when I come over here,” said Santillan as he settled in to the comfort of James’ home and their literacy learning space around James’ dining table. “I see him like a friend.”

The friendship and learning relationship has lead to successful scholarship and PSU college applications, a completed resume and a collection of career information interviews for Santillan, along with the reading and writing skills.

“We’ve thought about how to bring Rene’s life experiences to bear in his learning process,” said James. “He ran the backfield on the soccer team at Hood River Valley High School, which lead me to see his effective leadership abilities. We have been applying those to our work together.”

“The benefits of literacy tutoring are endless,” said Dahl. “Improving literacy skills can really open the doors that may have felt very closed to adults before; doors to education, a job, a career, or even just the freedom of an increased ability to speak to those around them, read to their children, or write something for their own enjoyment.”

“Sometimes it is the regular relationship with a tutor, and the impact of that individualized attention, that can make all the difference for a literacy student in gaining confidence, esteem and motivation to keep working,” said Dahl.

“From the college’s perspective, the hardest part in getting started with helping a student is simply not having enough volunteers. Volunteers are the life-blood of our program. Without them we cease to exist and cannot provide services to those in need.”

While James continues to support Santillan in his college and career pathway, a few others have directly benefitted from their literacy work together.

“I have a lot of friends that have also come to Mr. James for help on college and scholarship applications too,” said Santillan.

James laughs heartily in response, acknowledging that he really enjoys helping the young men who are so eager to build a future for themselves.

“We’ve gone on field trips to colleges and met with professors and administrators who have really encouraged these young men to plan for college,” said James.

“I now know how things work at a university,” acknowledges Santillan, who plans on a future degree in criminology at PSU.

“We get to know our learners’ goals and their specific needs, and the literacy work is tailored to fit those goals and needs,” said Dahl. “Once a learner has contacted us, they have our support all the way. There is no cost for the tutor and materials are provided.

“The hours each student invests in their learning really varies by their individual needs and goals. As a guideline, we usually suggest a learner meet with a tutor two times per week for an hour and a half to make steady progress.

“This year, we have about 25 tutors working with students, but we are always looking for more tutors,” explained Dahl.

For those seeking literacy help, the first step is a phone call and an intake interview.

“When we first talk with literacy students we really try to get to know each individual. We discuss their educational background, short and long-term goals, learning styles, tutor preferences/needs and do some informal assessments to determine reading and writing levels. Once this is complete they are officially on the list to await a tutor,” said Dahl.

“During the match process and after a match is complete, we work closely with both the tutor and learner to ensure success as much as we can. Ultimately, the decision is up to the tutor and learner to decide length and frequency of their meetings,” noted Dahl.

For those wanting additional information on becoming a tutor or seeking help in adult literacy, contact Shayna Dahl at: 541-506-6046 or The Gorge Literacy program website provides an overview of all aspects of interest to would be tutors and potential students as well and may be found at:

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