Inside a plain, concrete block building on a bustling corner in downtown Ocala, lives are transformed simply by walking through the door.
At the Marion County Literacy Council, individuals seek help learning to read, to speak English, or to graduate from high school. Here, they can shrug off the old versions of themselves and take the brave steps to improving their future. Stigma and judgment have no place within these walls, and all are welcomed with open arms.
The Literacy Council provides each of their clients with the foundational building blocks that will aid them in finding better jobs and higher education through earning their GED degree, learning to read with confidence through their Adult Basic Education courses or learning English through their English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.
What started with a few students learning to read in founder Barbara Woodson’s garage in 1999 has swelled to a program that touches more than 500 students a year. This transformational work is done by just one paid staff member and a dedicated team of volunteer tutors.
The hallmark of the Marion County Literacy Council’s program is its one-on-one tutoring model. Each student is tested to determine their level of learning and then placed with the appropriate tutor who specializes in their area of study. Students have twice-weekly sessions, 1.5 hours long.
Students are asked to pay $40 per semester. This allows each student to have a financial investment in their studies. Those needing financial assistance will never be turned away.
“We ask each student their goals and what they would ultimately like to achieve by being here,” explained Yamila Acosta, program coordinator for the Literacy Council. “They can move at their own pace, and we will meet them where they are. It’s our responsibility to our students to take away the barriers to their learning. We won’t stop until our students get where they want to go.”
ESOL has typically been the largest program at the Marion County Literacy Council; however, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the GED program to grow in numbers. Many students lost their jobs during the pandemic. When they went to regain employment, they realized that obtaining their GED was now necessary.
Despite the pandemic’s restrictions on in-person learning, the Marion County Literacy Council had 14 GED graduates for the 2020 year. One of those graduates was Jeffrey Stone, a 35-year-old solid waste supervisor who dropped out of high school in 10th grade.
“It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to get my GED. I kept hitting obstacles to moving up professionally. My son was born with a lot of medical needs, and I realized now was the time that I needed to make it happen and move forward,” Stone noted.
Stone set a goal to earn his GED in six months so that he could enroll in college in the fall of 2020.
Then COVID-19 shuttered many classrooms and testing sites. Stone was undeterred.
“I met with my tutor over the phone. I had my GED textbook and would read along and discuss what was going on on each page with my tutor. For math, I would send my tutor screenshots of how I worked out a problem, and we would go over it from there,” he explained.
In July 2020, Stone earned his GED. He is currently enrolled at Santa Fe College with a 3.95 grade point average and serves as the president and founder of the College’s IT Club. He was also recently asked to serve as a board member on the Marion Council Literacy Council’s Board of Directors.
The staff at the Literacy Council witnesses their students at their most vulnerable. They recognize how hard it is to admit that you cannot read, haven’t graduated high school or speak the language of your new country. They are determined to provide a nurturing, safe environment in which each student feels respected and accepted.
“We believe in every single student who walks through that door,” Acosta said. “We are cheering everyone on, all the time.”
In a world that is rife with seemingly endless bad news, the Marion County Literacy Council provides good news every day with the success of each of its students.
May we all have the belief both in ourselves and in each other that Yamila and her volunteers have for each person that walks through their doors.
The Marion County Literacy Council needs more tutors! To learn more, visit https://www.marionliteracy.org.
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