Southern Berkshire Literacy Network marks 25th year

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LEE — Teacher Mario Caluori and his student Henry Chung epitomize the present day Literacy Network of South Berkshire.

The pairing is among the dozens within LitNet, as it's known, in which English as a second language has become the focus of the 25-year-old organization's weekly tutorials held at Lee Library.

Though Chung began learning English after he immigrated to America from Vietnam 20 years ago — eventually becoming a U.S. citizen — the owner of Pho Sai Gon restaurant in Lee still felt compelled to start weekly meetings with Caluori four years ago.

"I always want to improve my English. I have to talk to people in my business," he said.

Caluori says the lessons aren't necessarily about nouns, verbs and sentence structure, but the English language in the context of every day life, such as the news of the day.

"[Chung] is very willing to speak up," Caluori said. "There's impromptu discussions about the upcoming election and the candidates."

Chung is representative of LitNet's evolution since the nonprofit was founded 25 years ago. Initially, the free-of-charge educational service mostly helped adults get a high school diploma or improve their communication skills for a better job. In recent years, LitNet has primarily taught English to local immigrants, assist in attaining their citizenship and provide them basic adult education.

According to U.S. Census data, South Berkshire residents who speak a language other than English at home rose 30 percent between 2009-2014 to roughly 3,000 people.

LitNet Board of Directors President Lucy Prashker finds literacy crucial to a free and just society, especially for those looking for a better life in America.

"Unlike many of us, our immigrant population has chosen to be here, especially in the Berkshires," she said. "When we teach our students, we learn ourselves. They inspire and lift us up."

Mary Spina agrees that a LitNet education is a two-way street.

"I feel I have learned from the students, as well as the tutors, every day," she said. "I get to meet people who have come from all over the world."

An 11-year veteran of LitNet, Spina and Marcia Powdermaker share the education coordination duties of matching students with the right tutors.

Students range from 20 to 71 years of age, have come from 23 countries, currently residing in 14 different Berkshire communities, according to LitNet's executive director Jennifer Hermanski.

The majority of the students speak Spanish or Portuguese, with a good number, like Chung, becoming a Berkshire success story.

Camilo Manrique came to the U.S. 11 years ago and had difficulty finding work because he said his English was weak. After enrolling in the Literacy Network of the Berkshires, he gained the confidence he needed to communicate with employees and the public. He now operates 1862 Season on Main bed and breakfast in Stockbridge.

"LitNet helped build my confidence and helped me find a better job," he said. "After cleaning offices, I was able to work in hotels and restaurants because my English was getting better and better."

LitNet's 2016 successes include two more students becoming U.S. citizens, three have bought their first homes, and numoerous others have better jobs thanks to improved communication skills, according to Hermanski.

Spina believes the key is the compassion and patience the tutors show their students who, in turn, have a burning desire to learn.

"I respect our students so much. They have monumental courage coming to this country," she said.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233


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