the literacy program santa cruz county jail
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Literacy Program Teaches Lessons in and out of County Jail

Inmates say that learning better English will help them lead more fulfilling lives after their release

Inmates participating in the Literacy Program say they are learning valuable skills that will help them succeed in life after jail.

At the Santa Cruz Main Jail, at promptly 8 a.m., five inmates file into a program room for their twice-weekly English as Second Language (ESL) class, led by a volunteer tutor from the Literacy Program. It’s one of many programs under the umbrella of the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County.

“When I get out of here,” inmate Alvaro Perez says with a heavy Mexican accent, “I want to be able to speak English with my daughter, and maybe help her with her homework someday.” A few of his classmates nod in agreement.  

“It is very important to know some English out there,” says another student, Salvador Serna, “especially to find work, but also if you want to talk with your kids, who are learning English, not Spanish.”  

The Literacy Program stepped up to the challenge of providing ESL and GED prep courses at the county jail and Rountree Minimum Security facility beginning in 2012, under the leadership of Genie Dee, the former Literacy Program coordinator, as part of state-funded reforms. Dee passed away on Aug. 18 after a short but ravaging bout with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  

Dee led the Literacy Program with unflagging dedication for six years, and built up several features—including the jail component—making it a vital, volunteer-driven, no-cost English-language tutoring service for adults throughout the county. The program now has 250 volunteer tutors, many of them retired teachers, for about 300 student learners, not including the approximately 30 students in jail.

More than half of the student learners are between 30 and 44 years old, 78 percent of them women, of which the majority have children. The tutoring is done mostly one-on-one, and focuses on learning functional, day-to-day English, as well as financial literacy, life skills and emergency responses that require English. There are also tutors specializing in math and other subjects required to pass the GED. There are currently 60 people on a waiting list for a tutor.

Dhara Damania, the new Literacy Program Coordinator, says she’s felt inspired by Dee’s dedication to the program. Following her hire, Damania only had two days of training with Dee before her predecessor passed away suddenly.

The Literacy Program is preparing to kick off a fundraiser through the Human Race, and it’s considering adding other programs to local jails.

Originally from India, Damania, 31, says her background as an immigrant and non-native speaker of English gives her insight into the challenges adult immigrants face as they try to master American English and assimilate into the culture. Damania left a career as a market data analyst for Merrill Lynch in Singapore when she came to California in 2015. After her professional experience with American corporate culture overseas, Damania, who learned more about her path through a stint with AmeriCorps, says she was delighted to get involved with nonprofit volunteerism and literacy when she came to America.

Damania says one of the most pleasant surprises of her own immigrant experience was discovering a “real, down-home culture of giving and volunteerism in America.” The American traditions of “giving and looking out for your neighbor,” she says, “doesn’t really get out there much in what most of us learn about America.”

For more information about the Literacy Program, visit literacysantacruz.org.

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