By Stephanie Harp

From a first grader learning to tell her own stories, to a young artist with a new pet, to a Certified Nursing Assistant who needs to improve her English skills to talk with her patients, Midcoast Literacy provides a range of tutoring for New Mainers and native English speakers alike. Based in Bath, the nonprofit Midcoast Literacy provides free literacy programs in Lincoln, Sagadahoc, and northern Cumberland counties. “We’re the only ones in the area,” Executive Director Don Lader said of the service organization that began 50 years ago under four different names and has consolidated over the decades. “The name has changed but the mission hasn’t.” That mission is to improve lives through literacy.

One thing that has changed, however, is the work Midcoast Literacy has been doing since large numbers of asylum-seeking families and individuals arrived at the Portland Exposition from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019, many of whom then settled in the Brunswick-Bath area, where Midcoast Literacy operates. “We reached out and offered our services to them as soon as they arrived in our area,” said Lader. After a few days of gathering information through an intake process, for both adults and children, Midcoast Literacy started recruiting more tutors who wanted to work with the new arrivals, and began matching students with tutors. “It’s been a very interesting experience for us because of the cultural differences,” he said. “We did not have experience working with individuals from African nations,” though they have tutored many students with Asian backgrounds. “There were big cultural differences that we had to get used to. Part of that is the way the education system works in the DRC and Angola. Basically, the parental group is hands-off, and lets the education group take care of everything, except for the annual exam.” In the U.S., parents typically are much more involved in their children’s education.

Midcoast Literacy held training sessions about addressing cultural differences. Integral to the process were Nsiona Nguizani, the cultural broker for Brunswick, and Maurice Namwira, in Bath, who helped staff and tutors understand the differences and challenges faced by their new students. These sessions alerted tutors to specific issues. “When we volunteered to bring in tutors, initially it was a rough start because they had so many other things going on, in addition to the trauma involved from their trip,” Lader said. Students and tutors first had to build relationships of trust, and parental permission was necessary before tutors could start working with the children.

Read Together learner Joyce at an outdoor session with her Midcoast Literacy tutor, Judy Segal. Photo | Judy Segal

After the arrivals settled into housing, adults sometimes have had trouble finding time to learn to converse in English; different families may speak three or four different languages. “Some have made a lot of progress, some not much,” said Lader. “Some might join in for a while, then disappear for a while.”

Pargha is learning English as her third language. A mother of three young children who also works a full-time job as a CNA, she wanted to continue studying English after she took classes in Portland then moved to Bath. “I need good English to speak with the patients in my work,” she said. “My goal is to get my high school diploma here and go to college.”

In 2020, 45 volunteer tutors worked with 52 adult English language learners and 10 additional native speakers who wanted to improve their skills. The Read Together program for ages 6 to 14 had 46 students, one-third of whom were from asylum-seeking families.

Tutor relationships with both adults and children were moving along, then COVID-19 started. “COVID does not help at all. Individuals, unfortunately, are in small apartments with some fairly large families. Depression is a big thing. Individuals are not able to get out, and don’t get a chance to get away from their children.” Their home cultures are very social, and they may have keenly missed these interactions during the necessary isolation. The biggest challenges of COVID-19 restrictions during this past year have been locations and transportation. In-person sessions are more effective, but they must be in public places, most of which were closed. Sessions had to shift online or to park benches, outdoor tables, or whatever they could find and make work. Holding adult sessions online presented problems such as internet access.

“Young children are fantastic. They just absorb everything.”

Don Lader

But most in-person tutoring continued for children, with virus protections in place – at outdoor tables or in the library at the Midcoast Literacy offices. During winter, the Bath YMCA at The Landing provided a room for tutoring. Often a tutor would go to the child’s home, bring the child to the YMCA, and then take the child back home. “The tutors are absolutely fantastic,” Lader said. “They bend over backwards to try to make this work. It’s truly amazing what our volunteer tutors do.”

Tutor Judy Segal began working with Joyce, a first grader, in January 2020. Schools closed not long after they started meeting, so they tried Zoom, then moved outdoors as soon as they could. This past winter, they held in-person sessions at The Landing YMCA. Joyce is a New Mainer who is learning to read, write, and speak English. When she began to dictate her own stories, Segal wrote them down and Joyce then took them home to read to her mother. “Her stories would go on forever if I let her keep talking!” Segal said about her enthusiastic student.

One unexpected side effect of the virus crisis is that more younger people are volunteering to become tutors. Lader thinks this is partially because everyone was so restricted in what they were able to do. “This is a way for them to feel like they could still get out and do something, continue to volunteer for the community.” And Midcoast Literacy’s work with the asylum seekers helped the organization become more well-known, which also has attracted new tutors.
In addition to English language instruction for adults and children, Midcoast Literacy offers Basic Literacy for native English-speaking adults; Read With Me, which provides a reading program and free books for young children; and Read Together tutoring for ages 6-14 who are reading below grade level. In non-virus times, families can take part in Readers Theater performances of childrens’ books by local actors. Midcoast Literacy collaborates with a number of local, social service organizations including Head Start, hunger prevention programs, libraries, adult education, and community centers, and coordinates its summer books program to coincide with sessions by ArtVan, the mobile arts therapy service that has programs in a number of neighborhoods.

For more information about volunteering or to find a tutor, contact Midcoast Literacy at (207) 443-6384 or [email protected].