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After 20 years, Literacy Volunteers of the Berkshires gets a new executive director. Denise Roszkowski speaks on the challenges helping residents break language barriers

PITTSFIELD — Literacy Volunteers of the Berkshires, founded in 1980 to help adults learn English, is welcoming Denise Roszkowski as its new executive director. Her predecessor, Karen Wallace, filled the role for over 20 years.

Roszkowski, who is eight weeks into the job, spoke to The Eagle in her office at the Berkshire Athenaeum, about what led her to this role and what lies ahead for Literacy Volunteers.

Roszkowski has more than a decade of experience in nonprofit management. She has retired from the private sector and has been a teacher for six years in Broward County, Fla. “My goals for the future are to make sure that the community of students and volunteers know we're here, know where to find us here in the library,” she said.

The nonprofit is part of the statewide organization Literacy Volunteers, along with 28 affiliates. The parent organization provides volunteers from each affiliate with 18 hours of training before their work begins.

Since its inception, the concept has remained the same. LVBC and other affiliates organize one-on-one tutoring for adult learners in basic reading and writing, while more fluent speakers are taught conversational English.

Roszkowski commented on this structure, saying, “The important thing is that the tutors are trained to be empathetic and to listen to what the individual students' needs are on that particular day and design their lesson plans around that. So no, there's not 'one size fits all.'”

To build this empathy, volunteers are put through a rigorous exercise in overcoming language barriers. Simply asking them to imagine living in a country where you don’t speak the language is not enough. During the training, trainees are thrown into a scenario in which their instructors use a made-up language as the soles means of communication. 

Through the use of this exercise, it becomes apparent how insurmountable a language barrier can seem to be. However, LVBC has an abundance of experience working around them, having served students from 42 countries for over four decades.

One of Roszkowski’s first goals is to meet the current need. Even though they are working with nearly fifty students, another 15 to 20 people are waitlisted. Most people she serves are in Pittsfield and Williamstown.

Volunteers are required to commit to meeting a student for two hours at least once a week over the course of six months. Most of the volunteer tutors are retired professionals, but volunteering is open to anyone over 18 who can make that commitment.

Roszkowski looks at the profiles and makes introductions that match people’s preferences in terms of proficiency and timing. Tutors and tutees make their own schedule once the match has been made.

Roszkowski, a daughter of Greek immigrants, says she is familiar with some of the difficulties of being an immigrant.

“I very much understand the language dilemma when someone comes here, and how they're regarded when they don't speak the language. We have students who have secondary and post-secondary educations, who are taking jobs in restaurants and factories. Just because they don't speak the language, they're not able to integrate into the community and be successful. Teaching them literacy enables that and empowers them to be successful and contributing members of our community,” she said.

Learning a language, especially as an adult, is not a linear process. Roszkowski says that often people get too busy with other aspects of their lives and stop their sessions. Then decades later, they find more time and come back. This is no problem for LVBC though. “We retain their files and we have very thorough records on their progress,” she said.

But the most important part is what students want to learn. That’s what Roszkowski tries to zero out on during the intake process.

As she leaves the Berkshire Immigrant Center, Michelle Lopez reveals this nonprofit's challenges

There is also standardized testing of all of the students periodically. These tests serve a dual purpose; not only do they track students’ success and improvements in literacy and English language skills, but also how close they are to meeting their goals.

The closest Mexican consulate is 120 miles away, making it difficult for Mexican citizens in the Berkshires to renew their passports. But once a year, the consulate comes to them

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez can be reached at aalvarez@berkshireeagle.com.

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