Executive Director Leigh Doherty, left, board member Leslie Shatz and board President Merle Duskin Kailas.
STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — The Literacy Network of South Berkshire, known as LitNet, has been empowering adult learners with education and advocacy for 30 years, most of them being immigrants working on English to speakers of other languages (ESOL.)
"On this, our 30th anniversary we are here today to celebrate our learners, and when we say LitNet has been transforming lives for 30 years, it's a full realization that we are and have been in partnership with brave and committed people who choose to participate and transform their lives," President Merle Duskin Kailas said in a pre-recorded speech for the occasion.
"At LitNet, we believe everyone has a right to an education, we believe in the power of literacy to transform lives, we believe challenges in life and learning should you have the patience and flexibility, we believe a connected community is a stronger community."
LitNet was founded by Peg Smith and Zoe Dalheim because they noticed that many adults could not read even after going through the school system.
They started off in the Lee Library and have now grown in include about 125 volunteers who are paired with learners. Some are seeking ESL education and others are working on General Educational Development degrees and other equivalent tests.
To celebrate the milestone, LitNet collaborated with Stockbridge-based photographer Julie McCarthy to create a photographic storytelling exhibit, "Transforming Lives," that highlights those whose lives have been improved by the program.
McCarthy's portraits of the learners are accompanied by self-written stories that focus on the impact LitNet has made on their lives and careers.
The exhibit was debuted at Berkshire Botanical Garden's Center House Leonhardt Gallery followed by a small reception with LitNet board members and staff.
One featured learner is Camilo, who moved to the United States from Colombia in 2005 and found a challenge in convincing people of his skills. He worked as a restaurant server and dishwasher before learning English and after learning the language, he made his way up in the hospitality industry and now works as the general manager of Devonshire Estates.
"Fifteen years ago I was a person struggling with my communication skills," he wrote. "Today, I can say it's been a long journey! I am part of the LitNet Board and I am a tutor."
Another featured learner Weiwei moved from China in 2008 and struggled with reading, writing, and speaking in English. Through LitNet, she passed the HiSET exam and a requirement to go to Berkshire Community College.
"Passing HiSET changed me a lot. Now, I have a goal to reach," she wrote. "I am currently registered for a pre-nursing program, which I never dreamt of doing. LitNet provided a new path for me that made my life meaningful."
LitNet board member Leslie Shatz said the project was an evolving process because of pandemic effects such as mask-wearing that made portraits difficult and tutors meeting with learners virtually.
The learners' experiences are meant to show a representative sample and a direct example of the collaboration between LitNet and its participants.
The exhibit is the main feature of the organization's 30th anniversary celebration event that was being held over the past weekend. It will go through various galleries and venues in Berkshire County into 2022.
Greylock Federal Credit Union was the main sponsor of Saturday's event.
President and CEO of Greylock John Bissell and financial wellness Latinx outreach coach Gloria Escobar were named as honorees in the celebration.
Because the bank has called off all in-person events due to the pandemic, all speeches were pre-recorded and played on television screens at the small gathering on Saturday.
Escobar worked with LitNet for 20 years and couldn't be more thankful for their services.
"Today I want and I can say thank you, I couldn't say this word 20 years ago when I didn't know how to pronounce 'th,'" she said. "After practicing and practicing, I can do that now. Thank you, thank you for this."
On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, she reflected on how her language barrier isolated her on Sept. 11, 2001.
"When I think about how invisible I felt during this process of learning and speaking English, a life-changing event comes to mind," she said.
"I will never forget about Sept. 11, 2001, I was at work at Housatonic Curtains when suddenly everyone was shouting and making phone calls, I thought I had done something terrible and they were talking about me, all day I felt anxious and nervous when no one would engage with me. It wasn't until I got home and heard the news in Spanish that I learned about the terrorist attacks."
Escobar said not knowing English felt embarrassing because she couldn't say what she needed to anywhere including work, appointments, at the bank, and her children's school.
"Without language, I felt tense, stressed, voiceless, frustrated," she added.
Escobar went to the Lee Library the first week she moved here and was soon working with LitNet to learn the English language. She is now working on finishing a business administration degree at Berkshire Community College and works with the immigrant community at Greylock to help them reach their goals.
In the last five years, she has earned many certifications to that empower her to help immigrants like herself and has even helped the credit union become a member of a national organization for inclusivity and community development.
Bissell thanked the organization for honoring him and for helping Escobar so that she, in turn, can help many others.
"I commend all the folks at LitNet for being such great role models, you understand the importance of inclusion and trust and compassion, and you take that understanding and you translate it into action, long before many people in Berkshire County were aware of our growing immigrant community you got busy welcoming new Americans and helping them gain the literacy skills they need to thrive in this region," he said.
One of the featured profiles was of Camilo, who found it a challenge to convince people of his skills until LitNet helped him learn English.
"Your work inspires me to make sure Berkshire County becomes a more welcoming place. Thanks to your work, my colleague Gloria Escobar, is able to recognize her potential as a financial educator, as a leader, as a change-maker in our community, because you helped her confidence in her language skills, Gloria is now helping hundreds of people every year to access safe, affordable financial services."
There is also a special LitNet program that covers the legal and administrative costs of becoming a citizen. About 15 volunteers are currently coaching learners for the citizenship test and exam.
Duskin Kailas said they currently have a waitlist of around 50 people looking to join the program and are actively seeking volunteers.
"The LitNet team and I have been successfully navigating the new landscape in the face of the pandemic," Executive Director Leigh Doherty said.
"Looking back at what goes on in one year, the challenges, the successes, the learners served, the new tutors on board, it makes looking back at the past 30 years pretty awesome when imagining all of the triumphs, roadblocks, kinds of change, and most of all, all of the learners we were able to serve learners, whose lives have been improved through learning or improving their English, or by achieving their high school equivalency certificate or becoming a naturalized American citizen."
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