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Sometimes, Phyllis Martin needs students. Other times, she needs tutors. But she doesn’t worry, because over the years, she’s learned it all works out.
Martin is the longtime volunteer director of the Rowan County Literacy Council. She’s also president of its board of directors. Daisy Boyd, who joined the organization in September 1994, one month before Martin, is its only paid staff member.
The agency receives more than 40 percent of its funding from the United Way, as well as grants from Fred and Alice Stanback, the Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation, the First United Church of Christ Foundation, along with memberships. The Scrabble Scramble, held every spring, is the council’s biggest fundraising event.
Martin came to the literacy council after a career in middle management, most recently with Belk.
“We do training for tutors for teaching adults,” Martin says. It’s different from teaching children, because adults are required to come to tutoring. And a background in education is not necessary.
“Everybody goes through the training process,” Martin says. “Educators do have some neat ideas. On the other hand, the rest of us have been in the business world.”
Tutoring is offered three times a year.
Right now, the literacy council is in need of students, Martin says. It’s because some students are only available during the day, with tutors only available in the evenings, and vice versa. Tutoring takes place at any library branch or any other public venue approved by the literacy council, including Trinity Oaks.
In 2012, 57 tutors logged 5,874 hours. If they were paid at a rate of for-profit tutoring groups, the amount of money tutors volunteered their time is equal to $154,960.
“The federal government says we’re not worth $40 an hour,” Martin notes, “but I think we’re probably worth more than $40 an hour.”
In 2012, the literacy council served 27 basic education students and 65 English as a Second Language (ESL) students, for a total of 92 students served. Of that number, 47 continued from the previous year. Unfortunately, national statistics indicate that 50 percent of students drop out within the first six months. According to literacy council statistics, 51 students left during the fiscal year, similar to national trends.
Of course, tutors and students talk about more than literacy. Those students who are not native speakers learn about American culture, and students have the opportunity to talk about what’s going on in their lives.
“Sometimes,” Martin explains, “things are going on in their lives that are so horrible, they don’t have their minds on tutoring.”
All students complete intake tests to determine where they are in literacy. Martin matches students by gender whenever possible. And she admits that most of the time, the matches work out fine, although sometimes they don’t.
Students have a variety of reasons for coming to tutoring. It’s less about reading a book than it is filling out job applications to find employment, Martin says. “You’ve got to realize what students want. Most students want their GED. Non-native speakers want to improve their English.”
That’s true of Sonny Ali, who started working with tutor Vance Meek in 2008. Ali is a native of Pakistan, and moved to the United States in 2000. He first lived in Reno, Nevada, then moved to Salisbury at the recommendation of friends from back home, he says.
Ali owns the Friendly Food Market, and his wife, Janie, is American.
“I saw an article in the newspaper and applied,” Ali says. “I want to work on my English and my reading. Vance is the best teacher I ever had. I have improved a lot.”
With Meek’s help, Ali became an American citizen in 2010.
“We practiced for the test, and I passed it,” Ali says with an enthusiastic smile.
Ali says he has the hardest time with English grammar and spelling, as well as understanding sayings.
“He’s at a pretty advanced level,” Meek says. There are eight ESL books, and Ali is already on book 8. After they complete that book, they’ll move on to computer programs and perhaps even the Rosetta Stone language program.
Ali and his wife would like to adopt a child, and Meek will help him with the paperwork.
“We’re still not close to adopting a child,” Ali says, his brown eyes filling momentarily with sadness.
In the meantime, Ali continues to work at his store, and is an avid member at the Hurley Y. He’s run 5Ks and a half-marathon obstacle course known as the Spartan Beast.
He pulls out his phone and shows off some photos of him in the race, covered with mud but obviously having a blast.
“After I did it,” he says, “I really enjoyed it.”
Ali finished high school in Pakistan, and may consider getting a college degree here someday. Right now, he’s reading Tom Brokaw’s “A Long Way from Home.”
Meek, too, also read about the literacy council in the paper, and decided to become a tutor. He’s retired as an engineer and manager with Performance Fibers, and he wanted something to do with his time.
Meek works with a second student, a man who was born and raised in Rowan County. He dropped out of high school in ninth grade. He works as a local mechanic, but was basically illiterate when he and Meek began working together.
“He has a pretty good job,” Meek says, “but he came to realize that he couldn’t get promoted if he couldn’t read and write.”
Meek has helped his second student navigate job applications, time sheets and work-related reports.
“I think he would like to get a GED,” Meek says. “He’s come a huge, long way.”
For his part, Meek feels good about helping these two students.
“I’ve always had an interest in teaching,” says Meek, who has two degrees from Georgia Tech. “When I saw this in the paper, I knew this what was I wanted to do.”
As you might guess, Martin herself loves to read, and counts mysteries among her favorites.
“The library and I are good friends,” she says.
Martin is already looking forward to the 2014 Scrabble Scramble, which will be at St. John’s Lutheran Church for the first time.
“I’d like to have at least 10 teams,” she says. Teams from Trinity Oaks, the South Rowan Y Service Club and the Friends of the Library have all participated in the past. The South Rowan Y group has been a perennial winner, although the Trinity Oaks team pulled an upset in 2013, winning the Scrabble Scramble title.
For more information about the Rowan County Literacy Council or the Scrabble Scramble, call Phyllis Martin at 704-216-8266.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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