Like most night school students, the people coming through the door have just come from their jobs, possibly gulping down a hurried bite to eat en route. For the next two hours, they will absorb as much information as they can and then head home or to a second job.
These aren’t ordinary students. The adults registered with South Carolina Adult Education are taking classes at the Literacy Center in Bluffton.
The current students come from 30 countries and speak 10 different languages. Out of the 433 enrolled, nearly 25 percent have degrees in law, medicine, finance and other subjects.
Success in their studies here will open many more doors when they have mastered English as a second language, or enhanced their math, reading and writing abilities. Some will earn their General Education Diploma (GED).
When Angelica Diaz and her family moved to Bluffton two years ago, she signed up for classes right away. It was a way to regain the English skills she had 20 years ago.
“When you don’t practice one language, you don’t have anything,” Diaz said. “My goal is to learn English for everything in life, and find a job for something I did in Venezuela.”
The former bank manager said she wanted to learn enough to return to her previous career, although now that she volunteers working with children at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, she might change aim for something new.
Making some of those dreams possible are the volunteers who provide the lessons. Some come from a teaching background, like Patti Audi and Karen Santa-Anna Blickstein.
“I lived on Hilton Head for four years, moving back and forth from New York,” Audi said. She taught at the Hilton Head Literacy Center when she was in town and then found the center in Bluffton. She signed on because, “I was missing the teaching part of myself.”
A retired teacher, Audi taught in a variety of settings before moving permanently to Hilton Head Island from Albany, from elementary students to a family literacy program, and finishing with nine years working in a state prison teaching 16- to 21-year-old male inmates. In order to get out of her classes, those students had to achieve a fifth grade reading level.
Blickstein, from New York City, has been working at the center for five years. Her Spanish language skills, learned in college and honed with trips to Mexico and Peru, have been helpful working with the beginner classes.
“When I first started, I had not been a school teacher for a long time, but I had been a corporate trainer and training adults for 20 years, so I have a different approach to it,” said Blickstein. “When it comes to explaining a technical point or a grammatical point, it’s so helpful to know they understand what I’m saying. With verbs and nouns, it’s pretty easy, but some things like conjunctions I will explain it in Spanish.”
Ann Durrin, who was holding class across the hall from Audi, said she never taught – which surprised Audi, who thought she was an excellent teacher. A graphic designer from Cleveland, Ohio, in the past four years Durrin has taught three full sessions and one mini-session.
“You get so much encouragement from the staff. They provide the training and support,” Durrin said. “I know I can give the students something.”
Though they are unpaid, these teachers appreciate and enjoy the rewards they receive as volunteers.
“You can see when the light bulb goes on, when they get it,” Durrin said. “It’s giving somebody confidence.”
The confidence is in communicating in a language other than their native tongues.
“When they come in, they’re very smart. They come from pretty good careers in their countries,” Audi said. “They show a lot of dedication in coming to school every night. They learn, we laugh, talk. It’s a good place to be a volunteer.”
Blickstein’s grandmother, who fled Russian Poland 100 years ago speaking only Yiddish, went to night school to learn English. “I’m just paying it forward,” Blickstein said. “I come home so charged up. I see them getting it and they’re getting into it, and I see their faces light up. I see eight people getting a little closer to making their dreams come true.”
The Literacy Center offers several programs, depending upon the needs of the student, at two main centers and three satellite sites in Bluffton and on Hilton Head.
The courses offered at the centers include Adult Basic Education, Pre-GED, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), citizenship, and Family Literacy 360 program, which brings children and their parents together to develop literacy skills.
For more information, visit theliteracycenter.org or call 843-815-6616.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.