Literacy program helps new mother learn to read English

Staff Writer

Laura Calderon recalls watching her husband, Armando, read to their daughter while she was still in the womb.

She wanted to help enrich their baby, too, but couldn't.

After the baby, Diana, was born and time passed, the girl wanted her mother to read to her.

Calderon froze. Like 80,000 Palm Beach County residents, she could not read.

"It was very, very frustrating," Calderon said recently, five years after that deciding moment. "Living in a country of another language is a frustrating thing for anybody."

She vowed to change that.

Calderon, then a vegetable picker in the sunbaked fields of Pahokee, heard about a literacy course in Belle Glade where she could learn English. She enrolled in the Glades Tri-City Family Education Program, which teaches parents to read so they can teach their children. The Palm Beach County Literacy Coalition sponsors the program and a similar one at the Village Academy in Delray Beach through grants by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the South Florida Annenberg Challenge.

Founded in 1989, the coalition promotes the teaching of basic reading and writing in hopes of advancing adult literacy. It also engages in programs and fund-raising events, such as the Great Grown-up Spelling Bee.

Twenty-two percent of adults in the county are functioning at the lowest level of literacy and cannot realize their dreams, state Department of Education officials estimate. Nearly half the illiterate adults in Florida live in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties, yet South Florida has less than one-third of the state's adult population.

Calderon's daughter attended a pre-kindergarten program in the same building in Belle Glade.

"I knew that I had to learn English and do it quickly because while she is growing, she is going to need me more and more," said Calderon, 30. "Right now, homework is easy, but I know it's going to be harder and harder. And I want to help her."

The first two weeks were difficult for Diana, Calderon said.

"She was very shy at the beginning -- not anymore," she said. "The program changed her. She would not talk or smile to anyone. She talked to her family but not to strangers."

Calderon's teachers were impressed by her tenacity after one year, and they kept encouraging her. She is awaiting the results of the General Equivalency Diploma so she can attend community college.

Last year, Calderon missed the writing section by one point, said Darlene Kostrub, director of the Palm Beach County Literacy Coalition.

Calderon said she would have passed the test in Spanish, but she wanted to satisfy a desire.

"It's a goal and a big challenge, but I am going to make it in English," said Calderon, who eventually wants to adults. "It's very rewarding. It was a challenge for me to learn English, and I know I can help my Hispanic people."

Calderon has become a famed example of adult/family literacy.

Her progress in learning English was so remarkable that she was chosen in November 2000 to join Gov. Jeb Bush at a Miami news conference to promote literacy grants. A few months later, she joined the governor again in Tallahassee for a luncheon announcing the first grants. Calderon shared a table with Bush and spoke about her successes in the program.

She also has appeared with former Sen. Paul Simon at The Breakers hotel for the annual Love of Literacy Luncheon and before the United Way and Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce.

"I have shown this video probably 100 times to different groups, and after watching it, they burst into applause and it's just on the video," she said. "It's so powerful."

Calderon gives back to her community by serving as a tutor in the program that taught her English. As one of the Literacy Coalition's 12 AmeriCorps community service members, she is serving 1,700 hours and will receive a $10,000 stipend, health insurance and childcare. After her year's service, she'll be awarded $4,725 for college tuition.

Calderon, Kostrub said, represents hundreds of people who have emerged from the darkness of illiteracy to learn parenting and job skills since the project began eight years ago in a tiny, two-room schoolhouse.

"It's really answering a call to community service," Kostrub said. "It's a labor of love."

C. Ron Allen can be reached at or 561-243-6611.

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