Learning center busy breaking the chain of illiteracy


ASK VOLUNTEER Virginia Walsh what the South Baltimore Learning Corporation is all about and she'll quickly answer "to break the chain of illiteracy."

Anyone at any age, with the desire to learn, can walk into this small center at 28 East Ostend St. in South Baltimore where free instructions in reading, writing and math will be given by a one-on-one tutor.

And that's not all. Basic survival skills and other necessary information will be taught, such as how to pass a driver's license exam, become an American citizen, balance a budget, count change, write a check or anything connected with daily living that a person needs to know "or whatever that person wants to learn.

"We don't try to make someone do what we think he should. Instead, we try to help him reach his goals. If someone said all he wanted was to learn to read the Bible then we'd help him accomplish that," says Walsh, who is a VISTA volunteer and spends five days and two evenings a week at the center.

"Why do I volunteer here?" Walsh repeats a question asked. "Well, it has been a wonderful experience to watch people learn. In fact, the thrill is overwhelming. I wanted to do this when I read an article about the illiteracy in this country and the need to become involved in erasing it. So here I am and will probably be signing up for another year with VISTA," she explains.

Walsh, 39, has been at the center for just over a year. From Baltimore originally, she lived with her husband in Italy for 14 years but is now divorced and has returned home. Her 16-year-old son, Michael Pagnini, will be coming to visit her from Italy this summer, and she is very excited about it.

At the center, more than 50 students are being instructed by 44 community volunteers plus a staff of four. Staff is executive director Sandra Buck, Walsh and Nell Weiferich are VISTA volunteers and "there is a person from Burma and she wishes to remain anonymous," says Walsh.

Most students are residents of South Baltimore, but no one would be refused.

Student Judy Moellmen, 30, "just walked in last October and said she wanted to read, to get her GED and to go to college," says Walsh. "She is being tutored by volunteer Kimberly Genua and will begin GED training in the next class, which begins June 4. Judy has gained so much confidence. She talks with other young mothers in the school and encourages them. Her ability to express herself has greatly increased and she is an inspiration to all of us," says Walsh.

Judy comes to classes every Tuesday and Thursday evenings and her two children, Crystal, 6, and Jerimiah, 11, come with her.

At the center there is day care for children of students plus a program for them which concentrates on language skills. "Crystal read to me last night and she is remarkable," says Walsh.

The center has begun a program in the Federal Hill Elementary School in the area in which parents come to classes at the school every Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. One of the center's goals is to get parents involved in their children's schools in order to feel comfortable there instead of having the school represent failure and frustration for them. Also, plans are being made to start literacy classes in the workplace.

Weekday hours at the center are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and to 8:30 p.m. every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

Funds come from United Way, Baltimore Reads and VISTA, plus private donations.

To volunteer to the South Baltimore Learning Corporation, call 625-4215.

The domestic Peace Corps

VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, is often referred to as the domestic Peace Corps. Founded 26 years ago, the program is part of a federal volunteer program called ACTION.

"What sustains [the organization] is the fact that it is a full-timvolunteer assignment for which volunteers are compensated with a subsistence allowance and a monthly stipend," says Jerome Chmielak, ACTION's state program specialist.

Chmielak, whose office in the Federal Building in Hopkins Plaza handles Maryland and Delaware VISTA projects, says there are 47 VISTA volunteers in Maryland -- 27 of them in the Baltimore area -- helping in one of six different agencies such as the South Baltimore Learning Corporation.

K? For more information about VISTA call Chmielak at 962-4443.

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