Four years ago, in the midst of a snowfall, Buddy George arrived at the Project Literacy office at the Howard County Library. The door was locked, but a sign indicated that a key was available at the information desk. George, then 68, didn't know what it said.
"I couldn't read that sign, so I just sat on the floor and waited for several hours for someone to open the door," the Laurel resident recalled.
As a youngster, George moved frequently because his father ran a small circus. He said he never stayed in one place long enough to learn how to read, and finally just quit school altogether. For 40 years, he worked for a glass company in the Washington area, installing windshields and storefronts. Although he never learned to read, he developed a superb memory that helped him keep his jobs.
Not long after he retired, George decided he would learn to read. In 1999, he contacted Project Literacy about being tutored and then waited several months for an opening.
Adults who are unable to read can suffer socially and economically, said Janet Carsetti, director of Project Literacy. Since its founding in 1987, the free service, funded by the state Department of Education and the Howard County Library, has helped more than 2,300 people learn to read. Unlike George, most have been foreign born. They have come from 38 countries in Central and South America, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Many are literate in their native languages, but others are not; 20 percent of the clients have less than a third grade education. For all of them, learning to read English begins the same way.
"The 'a' in bait is a long 'a' and it sounds like the letter itself. The 'a' in dad is a short 'a,' like 'aah.' So the sentence sounds like this: Dad put the bait on the hook," tutor Lynne Prugh explains to every new client.
Most of her clients work two jobs, care for their families and don't have their own transportation, said Prugh, 54, who taught elementary school and tutored children for 25 years before joining Project Literacy. "Yet they show up on time for our twice-weekly sessions because they desperately want to learn to read and write in English," she said. "They are the most highly motivated students I have ever had."
The tutors, 75 volunteer and 12 paid (because they are certified teachers), are selected by Carsetti because they have the ability to establish a strong personal and professional rapport with their clients. In addition, Carsetti said, they are empathetic and patient, yet organized and firm.
Prugh, a five-year veteran, has a master's degree in social work and has undergone additional training to teach those with learning disabilities. As one of the paid tutors, she works 22.5 hours a week with 10 clients.
Even after four years of working with Prugh, George still comes to Project Literacy faithfully twice a week and has no plans to quit. "I want to keep learning as long as I can," he said. "I want to grow old with Lynne."
Sitting next to a new client recently, Prugh spoke gently. She seemed warm and interested, with the demeanor of a favorite teacher. "Let's begin with you telling me something about yourself. I will put what you say into sentences that we will use to help you start reading," Prugh said.
Beginning with something familiar makes it easier to teach spelling and pronunciation and helps clients experience the thrill of reading right away. Learning to read is very hard work for an adult, especially one such as George, who left school at an early age, so Prugh tries to create successes early and often.
Tutors and their clients meet in a bright room off the second floor of the main branch of the Howard County Library. Country flags decorate the walls, along with greetings in English, Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Arabic. Fresh coffee is always available, often with native delicacies prepared by the clients. Newspapers, workbooks, dictionaries, math and spelling flashcards fill the shelves, along with life skills cards that define work-related terms such as punctuality, accuracy and teamwork. There are six study areas where clients and tutors work one-on-one.
Learning to read is the first step to a better job, a general equivalency diploma (GED), U.S. citizenship, a commercial driver's license or a license to operate a small business. When one of Prugh's clients wanted to set up a home improvement business, Prugh produced a cassette recording of the training manual that he could listen to it between sessions.
For other clients, reading the newspaper is important, so Prugh will make a news article part of each lesson. She and her clients read the article and discuss its meaning.
Many foreign-born clients, such as Mei Chen, 40, from China, come to Project Literacy so they can communicate better with their children who become fluent in English at an early age.
"Sometimes I just don't know what my boy says," said Chen, the mother of a third-grader. "When my tutor teaches me, I understand."
Clients and tutors communicate quietly. No voice can be heard above the others. There are even moments of silence. "My clients are trying to process so much at once -- spelling, grammar, a new language and a new alphabet -- that I let them know that silence is good and that it's important to sit quietly to absorb the new information," Prugh said.
Sometimes clients become discouraged, feeling they are not progressing quickly enough. "When that happens," Prugh said, "I ask them to take out an old notebook and read to me what they have already completed. Then they feel the pride of their accomplishment."
Depending on their goals, clients spend an average of 21/2 years in Project Literacy. Often, Prugh finds herself teaching more than phonetics and spelling. When the heat or telephone is turned off, or the school sends a letter that the client can't read or a family member needs medical care, Prugh's lesson plan turns to more pressing matters. "An important part of my job is to help clients help themselves, no matter how daunting their life circumstances," she said.
When clients have nowhere to turn, everyone at Project Literacy gets involved. Sometimes Howard County's social service agencies are called to help. "None of us leaves our jobs at the office at night," Prugh said.
If clients repeatedly miss their appointments without reasonable explanations, they will be asked to leave the program to make room for others. The waiting list ranges from two weeks to several months.
"I believe it is important that my clients learn to take advantages of the opportunities that are offered to them," Prugh said.
The dropout rate is about 10 percent, and evidence of success is everywhere. The walls in the Project Literacy office are covered with thank-you letters and pictures of clients receiving their GEDs, standing in their businesses or displaying their newly acquired certificates of U.S. citizenship.
"This is the ultimate teaching experience," Prugh said. "I am blessed to be in this role because every day my clients remind me that we can make our lives whatever we want them to be."
Recently, Buddy George went to visit a doctor and discovered a sign on the door that the office had been relocated. This time, he knew what it said.
"All of my life I had come to doors with signs that I could not read," he said. "Today, I read the signs and open the doors that were closed to me in the past."
"I want to learn as long as I can," George said. "I want to grow old with Lynne." George, 68, did not learn to read until after he retired. Prugh, a veteran of five years in the program, calls her work "the ultimate teaching experience."