LEE -- When it was founded 21 years ago, the Literacy Network of South Berkshire matched volunteer tutors to clients with limited or even non-existent reading skills.

Now, as the organization supported by private donations prepares for its annual fundraising gala, its mission has morphed into more general adult basic education, with an emphasis on developing employment skills and teaching English as a second language to Southern Berkshire's burgeoning population of immigrants.

The gala, on Saturday (Oct. 13) at Berkshire Country Day School in Stockbridge, honors the Masiero family -- Chris and Matt, the founders and owners of Guido's Fresh Marketplace, and Paul, the owner of Baba Louie's Sourdough Pizza Cos. in Great Barrington and Pittsfield.

If you go:

What: Literacy Network of South Berkshire Annual Gala. Major fundraiser, this year honoring the Masiero family with the annual Founders of America award. Event theme: An Italian Farmers Market.
Where: Berkshire Country Day School, Fitzpatrick Hall, Route 183, Stockbridge.
When: Saturday, Oct. 13, 5:30 p.m.
Tickets: $125 per person.
How: By phone, (413) 243-0471. Online, www.litnetsb.org.

The Founders of America Award cites three generations of the Masiero family for their contributions to the county. An Italian farmers market is the theme of the event.

The fundraising goal is $90,000, which would yield $65,000 after expenses, said LitNet's new, full-time executive director, Laura Qualliotine of Richmond.

According to Liliana Ortiz-Bermudez of Lee, who arrived from Colombia in 1988, the LitNet program first helped her with English skills when she was a freshman at Berkshire Community College in 1995. Now, she's planning to become a tutor.

"I learned the process, the program is great and successful, so I hope I can help," Ortiz-Bermudez said. "I know the frustration and maybe people can get some benefit."

Along with Maggie Howard of Tyringham, Berkshire Eagle classical music critic Andrew L. Pincus of Lenox is LitNet's longest-serving tutor, having started nearly 20 years ago.

"I worked with words all my life and when I had a lull in my professional work, I thought maybe it was time to start giving back after using words and making a living off them all my life," Pincus said.

Tutor Ronald Terry has worked with Rosalba Castaneda, an immigrant from Bogota, Colombia, for more than 11 years.

By the numbers:

Some key facts about the Literacy Network of South Berkshires:

Students: 112 (seven on waiting list).
Volunteer tutors: 110 (20 more to be trained).
Tutor training opportunities: Tuesday, Oct. 23, 5-7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Oct. 25, 5-7:30 p.m., both at Lee Library. Also: Thursday, Nov. 1, 3-5 p.m., at Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge.
Free services for students: Development of reading, math and computer skills; English as a second language; GED preparation.
Information: By phone, (413) 243-0471. Online, www.litnetsb.org.

"I wanted her to be capable in everyday life, to go to the store, read a newspaper, talk to a doctor," Terry stated.

"Day by day, I was learning more," Castaneda wrote via email. "I was able to help my kids with their homework. I could go everywhere without help."

Qualliotine, one of three paid staffers, explained that about 85 students are in the ESL program, while eight develop reading skills.

"It's a broader definition of literacy," she said. "Many adults are really struggling to meet the demands of the workplace in terms of math and computer literacy." Thus, tutorials are offered in those fields.

The agency, which covers the county south of Pittsfield, draws the majority of its clients from Lee and Great Barrington, though it's open to anyone who lives, works or worships in South Berkshire.

Students represent 25 countries. Most are from Brazil, Colombia or Ecuador, but others are from China, Vietnam, Japan, Russia and Ukraine.

The agency still attempts to reach non-readers, but many are reluctant to come forward despite guarantees of anonymity.

A read on programs:

Four organizations in Berkshire County offer adult basic-education programs that include development of skills considered vital in today's workplace:

Literacy Network of South Berkshires: 100 Main St., Lee; (413) 243-0471.
Literacy Volunteers of Berkshire County: 1 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield; (413) 499-9487.
Pittsfield Adult Learning Center: 106 North St., Pittsfield; (413) 499-9530.
Northern Berkshire ABE Program: MCLA Learning Services Center, 375 Church St., North Adams; (413) 662-5314.

"There's a lot of shame and difficulty in saying they need help," the director observed. "People really associate that with intelligence, which is inaccurate. Generally, it's some sort of learning disability like dyslexia, an inability to hear and identify sounds in a particular way, which is really integral to being able to decode language."

One-on-one tutoring sessions are held in public places such as libraries, community centers and the BCC South campus in Great Barrington.

Patience and compassion are essential qualities for tutors, said Qualliotine.

"There are a lot of obstacles that come up for our students," she said.

A compatible relationship between tutor and student is the most important element, she added, "because at the end of the day, that's where the learning happens, that's where the connections are made."

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.