Bellingham-based nonprofit aims to bolster adult literacy programs in Blaine

By Stefanie Donahue

In Washington, nearly half a million people over the age of 25 lack high school credentials and approximately 270,000 people, or 5 percent of the state’s population, are new to learning the English language, according to a 2008 report from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Despite the number of adult literacy programs throughout the state, recruiting learners can be a steep climb, especially in small cities like Blaine. According to the institute’s report, 31 of the 39 counties in Washington have adult literacy programs. For the most part, the programs are based in urban areas and are sponsored by community and technical colleges, community groups, government agencies and other local entities.

“Low levels of literacy are associated with lower levels of income and employment and higher levels of poverty,” the report stated. “Characteristics over-represented in adults identified with lower levels of literacy include lacking a high school diploma, being foreign born and having multiple disabilities.”

The effort to bolster adult literacy programs in Whatcom County has taken years and is led in part by Bellingham-based Whatcom Literacy Council (WLC). The organization has served county residents for nearly 40 years with programs aiming to advance basic literacy skills such as reading, writing and speaking English, in order to boost employment opportunities, further education and more. In 2016, the nonprofit connected 909 adult learners with 100 tutors for private lessons and group classes.

In recent months, WLC volunteer Jim West has tried to boost awareness of the programs in Blaine by posting flyers around town and hosting his own information sessions, which are scheduled late this month and into December. The challenge, he said, is reaching out to people who can’t speak fluent English about a subject that is often sensitive in nature and embarrassing to discuss.

“How do I make contact,” he asked. “I think people are very hesitant to make [that] phone call.”

Since starting two years ago, West has worked with three adult learners through WLC. Even without a teaching background, he said he found tutoring enjoyable. “The people that you work with are so eager to learn,” he said. “Without a GED in this world, you’re just toast.”

WLC provides group and individual learning programs with trained tutors. Two one-on-one programs are provided by WLC to learners at no cost, including: Adult Literacy Program (ALP), which teaches reading and writing and English Language Learner (ELL), which combines all three for those who are new to learning the English language and GED test preparation and basic computer skills. Small group classes are also offered.

Tutors are interviewed, trained and matched with qualified adult learners based on availability, location, gender, personality, work experience and personal interests. WLC requires that tutors and adult learners meet two times a week for about 90 minutes, according to its website.

WLC executive director Katherine Freimund said that without a designated community group in Blaine, it’s challenging to conduct outreach and establish a sustainable adult literacy program. She encourages locals to step forward and form a group, similar to Friends of the Blaine Library, to identify community needs and establish connections with public agencies in the area.

“It’s rather challenging to reach out to people,” she said. “Having people on the ground
like Jim is ideal.”

To learn more about the WLC, stop by an information session led by West from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 29 and from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 6 at the Blaine Public Library, 610 3rd St and from 2 to 3 p.m. on Friday, December 1 and 2 to 3 p.m. on Friday, December 8 at the Blaine Senior Center, 763 G Street. For more information, contact West at 360/312-6580.

To learn more about becoming a tutor, adult learner, a member of a WLC community group in Blaine or if you know of anyone who could benefit from WLC programs, contact Freimund at director@whatcomliteracy.org or 360/752-8678. Visit whatcomliteracy.org for more information.

“We really feel that there is potential to do good in Blaine,” Freimund said.

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