Two years ago, 32-year-old Phyllis had little or no reading skills. Today, she reads on a third-grade level, thanks to Kitty Allwine, 65, a volunteer for the Anne Arundel Literacy Council.
Ms. Allwine, who says she volunteers for the council because of her own obsession with reading, is determined that Phyllis, whose last name is not being used, learn the joy of reading.
"Reading is such a great thing," said Ms. Allwine, of Severna Park. "It's so important to me that I can't imagine not being able to read."
Ms. Allwine has worked with five students during the decade she has been with the council, trying to reduce their fear of reading.
"These people have gone through so much trauma," she said, "They've spent all their lives trying to find a way to hide their secret. They've spent all their lives being laughed at." Phyllis, tired of being laughed at, tried to get help with her reading problems as far back as the sixth grade.
"My teachers didn't care," she said, "All they'd say is you'll do better next time."
At the age of 11, Phyllis went to the principal on her own to try to get placed in a special education class and was told that they had no room. After that, she was discouraged by public education and dropped out of school at age 13.
"This is a common story," said Ms. Allwine, "These people need special care at an early age and they weren't given it. Back in those days, they just didn't address the problem."
Ms. Allwine said she'd like to see training for reading problems start at the elementary age and not wait until "they have to train all over again," she said.
Ms. Allwine spent several hours in a Literacy Council training program where she learned how to teach adults to read before she was matched with her first student.
Nancy Mocarsky, executive director of the Literacy Council, has matched volunteers with more than 130 adult students.
"Teaching adults is different," she said, "Adults have experiences and broad knowledge. Often you find out the tutor is learning from the student."
Ms. Mocarsky said seniors, like Ms. Allwine, tend to be more patient with struggling students and usually establish strong bonds.
"Some seniors who don't travel find it rewarding," she said, "They see how they can turn someone's life around."
Ms. Allwine felt her hard work had paid off when one of her students finally was able to read a traffic sign that he'd passed every day of his life.
"That was the biggest high for me," she said, "It keeps me going and still to this day gives me chills."
To help her students even more, Ms. Allwine now is taking a course in dyslexia, which she said often is the root of the problem.
Phyllis explained it is Ms. Allwine's determination that has helped her learn so much. "I feel I have done better with the reading," she said, "It's helping me with my work. I'm beginning to understand memos."
Ms. Allwine encouraged others to spend time helping people like Phyllis.
"It's probably the most rewarding volunteer work I've ever done," she said. "I've learned it's never too late to learn."