Literacy Volunteers open doors for adult learners

By Juliette Laaka | Nov 10, 2012
Photo by: Juliette Laaka From left, student Victoria Dorr, Program Director Beth Gifford and student Trisha Cookson work together for academic success.

Rockland — Young mother Victoria Dorr said the Mid-Coast Literacy Volunteers program has been a life changing catalyst for her.

"It has provided a future for my children. I was very low, academic-wise, and now I'm able to start certified nursing assistant courses," she said.

The organization was founded in 1974 for adults seeking educational assistance. Executive Director Beth Gifford said the program has served hundreds of people in its 38 years.

The learning center teaches a range of subjects to varying students, including basic literacy, basic adult education, GED prep, college transitions, English as a second language, health literacy and computer literacy. "Pretty much anything that you want," said Gifford. "There isn't a lot we don't do."

The program closely collaborates with and is partly funded by the Regional School Unit 13 Adult Education Program. The courses are often integrated and both entities share space at the McLain School in Rockland.

"One couldn't survive without the other." said Shannon Parker, director of adult education, citing the shared resources and commitment to serving students.

Gifford said after the first few hours of tutoring, she was hooked. Her first student was a single mother raising four children under the age of five — and she was illiterate.

At that time, six hours a week were available for 20 participating students. Today, about 200 students are served each year, assisted by 22 volunteers.

The adult educational programs accept students as young as 16, but teenagers cannot take the general educational development, or GED course, until age 17 and a mandated period of time out of school.

The GED program is open enrollment, and the amount of time to complete the test varies from student to student.

Practice tests are often administered and students can concentrate on one subject at a time, decreasing stress. Dorr said tutors ensure students are ready for the tests, helping to acclimate students to the test material and exam format.

Gifford said the majority of students enrolling in the GED program had frequently relocated during their high school years. "You can't learn, you can't function, or make progress if you're not settled," she said.

"Often, we are the first place where they are academically successful," she added. Many students have carried shame or humiliation from their childhood with them through their adult years — cementing their convictions that they can't be successful learners, whether it be in reading or algebra.

Often, the lack of educational support is cyclical in families, causing circumstances that produce unsuccessful academic experiences, she said. The program is safe and consistent, providing students the opportunity to engage more fully and have the one-on-one attention needed for study. "There's no judgment," added Dorr.

Student Trisha Cookson said she was nervous to receive help, but said the volunteers are there to help, so trusting in herself and accepting the support allowed her to improve her math skills and start job training.

Gifford said students know the staff is dedicated to their success.

A set schedule is provided. "If we say we'll be here — we'll be here," she said.

Volunteer and Board President Pat Niedzielski said tutors identify which students are self-directed and which students prefer individual attention.

"The tutors can be flexible and go beyond the walls of the classroom to work with students," she said. "Whatever works for the student, we try to do."

Niedzielski is a retired Spanish teacher and her experience teaching a language is invaluable for students learning English as a second language through the program.

Some tutoring is remedial, helping students develop skills in subjects they struggle with.

A new family literacy program that receives funding from the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Foundation is designed to provide a learning environment for both parents and children.

If a parent needs instruction for GED prep or diploma completion, they are able to have their children participate in literacy programs at the Rockland Public Library during their session. Having the safe, available care allows many parents to continue their education.

On Wednesdays, there is a music program designed for parents and children at the library. The literacy volunteers provided scholarships for three families to participate this year. Parents are also taught how to read to their children effectively so the child gets the most out of it, said Gifford. The program also teaches parents how to utilize library services.

Gifford said she is not surprised at the amount of people in the area that cannot read.

"Originally I was, but the truth is, I have students that graduated high school and read at a fourth-grade level. The question is, how is this possible? I have long since given up trying to answer that question. It's a national education issue," she said.

Gifford said the goal of the program is to build better parents, employees, and community members.

The oldest GED student was 89 years old. Listening to him to tell stories about pieces of history he lived through was fascinating, said Gifford, adding that sometimes while reading the history book, he would say an event didn't happen as described in his experience on Long Island, his native home.

As the eldest child, he left school at age 16 to help support his family and didn't return to complete his education until he joined the program.

He proudly completed the GED program, conquered math, and attended school every day from 9 a.m. to noon. At the graduation ceremony, he was bestowed the honor of giving a speech. "He was just a remarkable man," Gifford said.

"This is what I was put on the planet to do," said Gifford. She said she spends her days knowing she made positive difference in somebody's life. "I don't think it gets better than that." She said the program will continue to serve the highest amount of students with the resources they have.

"The tutors help you reach what you desire out of your life," Dorr said.

Contact Beth Gifford at or visit for more information.

Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at


Comments (2)
Posted by: Joanne L Richards | Nov 12, 2012 09:01

Beth is a very caring and dedicated teacher and she truly makes a difference in the lives of others each and every day.   Thank you Beth

Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Nov 11, 2012 05:12

Beth Gifford has done us all a great service by her enthusiasm, encouragement and love for those she serves. Her spirit infuses the volunteers who work with her; as well as the students. Thank you, Beth, for your powerful CAN DO example.

If you wish to comment, please login.