Worth Recognizing: Janet Saunders

Community Members Who Go Above & Beyond: Literacy Delaware volunteer improves lives of language-challenged adults

For the past nine years, Janet Saunders has taught adults who do not know how to speak, read, and write English how to communicate. “I come from England,” says Saunders. “I know how difficult it is to move and live in another country, but it’s difficult enough not knowing the language.”

As a volunteer for Literacy Delaware, Saunders, who lives in Wilmington, meets one-on-one with English language learners from Korea, China, the Caribbean or Latin America at local libraries throughout the week. And for two hours on Monday and Wednesday mornings, she leads a class at West End Head Start on Wilmington’s West Side.

Besides English learners, and as part of LD’s mission, Saunders has also tutored adults who read at or below fifth grade level. Low communication and reading skills limit a person’s economic, health, and social benefits, says Saunders. “The intent is to give the learners enough basic skills to handle their most essential needs. It helps the community as a whole to have competent people who can hold jobs and thus improve the lives of their children. It’s a benefit for everyone.”

According to the international non-profit ProLiteracy, one in six U.S. adults lacks basic literacy skills. Cindy Shermeyer, LD executive director, says it’s about the same in Delaware.

Studies also show that children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.

Currently LD has 80 volunteer tutors and 150 students. Thirty percent are basic learners while 70 percent are English language learners. Over 2,900 students have received free assistance since the non-profit’s inception in 1983. The statewide organization trains volunteers who are mostly retirees from careers such as marketing, banking, information technology, law and nursing. They teach basic English skills and/or basic reading, writing and math skills. The organization relies on fundraisers, grants and private donations.

Saunders, a former chemist, moved to the United States in 1959. She retired as a computer programmer in 1999 while living in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., and became a U.S. citizen in 2002. When she moved to the First State in 2009, a friend told her about Literacy Delaware, and she has been a volunteer ever since.

“I get a great deal of satisfaction from feeling that I have helped people improve their lives,” Saunders says. When she’s not busy tutoring, she is registering learners, helping with tutor orientation, or with social and fundraising events.

“She (Saunders) is amazing in her compassion, commitment, and dedication to this entire adult literacy endeavor,” says Shermeyer. “Her learners love her.”

An English learner, Esneyder Lopez, 52, says he’s taking full advantage of the free program and its volunteers. The Wilmington resident started taking classes five months ago to improve his job prospects. A successful business owner in Colombia, Lopez left everything behind eight years ago because of unsafe conditions in the South American country.

He says the classes have helped him increase his confidence and he’s no longer afraid to leave his home. “I can communicate. I no longer fear making mistakes, life is a lot simpler.”

He’s also a diabetic, and he says he can now understand his doctor’s diet recommendations. “If not for the program, my life would be very difficult,” Lopez says.

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