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HomeLife In the BerkshiresLitNet celebrates 30...

LitNet celebrates 30 years of changing lives, one person at a time

The Literacy Network of South Berkshire has supported immigrants from 30 different countries who speak more than 18 different languages, making our region home to the most diverse immigrant population in Massachusetts.

LEE — Gloria Escobar was first introduced to the Literacy Network of South Berkshire (LitNet) 21 years ago this month. “After visiting my brother [two years earlier] and seeing the beauty of the Berkshires, my husband and I made the decision to raise our children here,” Escobar told The Edge in a recent statement. One week after arriving from Colombia, she found her way to the Lee Library — highly regarded among Spanish speakers in the community for its one-on-one tutoring program. Escobar met with her first tutor for two years; at one point, a conversational English language tutor was arranged, and another to help Escobar with banking vocabulary. Ultimately, LitNet provided Escobar and her husband tutors to prepare for citizenship, “which we achieved in 2011,” she said.

Gloria Escobar
Gloria Escobar. Photo courtesy GFCU

On Saturday, Escobar — who is now Greylock Federal Credit Union’s financial wellness Latinx outreach coach — will be honored alongside John Bissell, Greylock’s president and CEO, at LitNet’s 30th anniversary celebration at Berkshire Botanical Garden. This pair of inspirational individuals, whose work enriches and uplifts the lives of others — making the Berkshires a stronger place in which to live and thrive — personify LitNet’s vision of a diverse, engaged, and literate community.

To mark the organization’s 30th anniversary, LitNet also will present a photographic and storytelling exhibit — aimed at highlighting the journeys of past and present LitNet learners — at the Berkshire Botanical Garden. “We have 16 stories, represented in photographs, of people whose lives have been transformed through their own hard work and in partnership with our amazing volunteer tutors,” Doherty said in a recent Zoom call with board members. Portraits by Julie W. McCarthy (who generously donated her time and talent), will serve as the focal point.

“I love people and their stories,” McCarthy said in that same Zoom call. “What really appealed to me about this project was the combination of the learners’ stories and my portraits — each complements the other,” she said of her black and white photographs that capture the grace and dignity of her subjects. “There are no distractions … you can focus on the face; it’s a powerful [medium] for showing a person’s personality.”

LitNet was founded in 1991 by Zoë Dalheim and Peg Smith, in partnership with the Lee Library Association, as a resource for one-on-one tutoring to improve literacy skills among adults in Berkshire County. Since its inception, the nonprofit has been leading the way in adult education in the Berkshires and beyond. Informed by shifting demographics, LitNet expanded its curriculum in the ensuing years with lessons in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and adult basic education to provide opportunities to immigrants who live and work in the region.

Leigh Doherty. Photo courtesy LitNet

LitNet Executive Director Leigh Doherty sits at the helm of an organization that has supported immigrants from 30 different countries who speak more than 18 different languages, making the Berkshires home to the most diverse immigrant population in Massachusetts. The nonprofit’s mission remains unchanged after three decades: “to transform the lives of adult learners, both immigrants and U.S.-born, through the power of literacy, education, and advocacy.”

A quick scan of the LitNet website reveals some staggering statistics: between 2009–2014, the number of residents in Southern Berkshire County who spoke a language other than English at home increased by almost 30 percent. At present, approximately 3,000 individuals in LitNet’s primary service area speak a language other than English at home, according to the American Community Survey from the United States Census Bureau.

Like most nonprofits, LitNet relies on the generosity of volunteers, in this case around 150 tutors from a variety of professional backgrounds. While no specific qualifications are required, save for proficiency in English and a desire to make a difference, LitNet tutors often act as first and primary points of contact and support for those who have newly arrived in the Berkshires (or the United States, for that matter). In a recent Edge article by Jane Jacobs, Doherty cited “the recent influx of non-native speakers into our area [as increasing] the need for tutoring assistance, which can take place either in-person or remotely. No prior tutoring background is required, as LitNet will train you and connect you to experienced tutors for further mentoring.”

During the past year, students enrolled with LitNet ranged in age from 20–71. While the majority hail from Central and South America, students also come from Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, as well as China, Japan, India, and Southeast Asia. Currently, more than 90 percent of LitNet’s students are studying ESOL, 5 percent are working to receive their high school equivalency certificate, 3 percent are pursuing their American citizenship, and 2 percent are practicing basic reading skills.

Escobar remains in school (and working with a LitNet tutor) as she prepares to finish her degree in Business Administration at Berkshire Community College. “Today, from my position at Greylock Federal Credit Union, I have the opportunity to work [with], help, and guide many immigrants who seek to succeed in this country,” Escobar said. “I feel blessed to live in a community that cares so much about the education of immigrants.”

NOTE: Saturday’s event is sold out. For more information and to purchase tickets to view the photography exhibit at Berkshire Botanical Garden on Sunday, Sept. 12 from 1-4 p.m., at which LitNet learners will be present, visit the LitNet website.

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