Ivan Díaz, 39, moved with his family from Venezuela to the United States six years ago. He says, “The U.S. is an amazing country! This is a real country for opportunity, for changing your life. I am an example of that.”
In the U.S., Díaz says, he is free to express his ideas and opinions. He was able to do so in English for an interview because of his Literacy Council volunteer tutor, Michael Cohen. When he came to the U.S., Díaz could read English but could not speak it intelligibly. He and Cohen have worked together for several years on Díaz’s English vocabulary and pronunciation. Their relationship goes beyond that of tutor and student; Cohen says, “He’s like my son.”
Díaz was a journalist and radio talk show host in his native city of Maracaibo, Venezuela; he had acted in national theater productions and a couple of movies. In Maryland, he had trouble finding work because in job interviews he couldn’t make himself understood. When he began waiting tables in a Mexican restaurant, his employers quickly recognized his talents and saw that he would make a great manager of their company – but his English had to improve. Asked what the Literacy Council has done for him, Díaz says, “I can be the manager of the restaurant because of the Literacy Council. Right now, I can speak to you because of the Literacy Council.”
Cohen adds that Díaz hadn’t understood how finances worked in the U.S. Even after he began working, he didn’t know how to find affordable housing. He didn’t know that there was a preschool program for his non-English-speaking twin daughters. As he helped Díaz improve his English, Cohen helped him learn how to make a life for his family here.
Like Díaz, the Literacy Council’s adult students might know some English when they arrive in the U.S. but can’t use it effectively. Others know no English at all, were perhaps illiterate in their own countries. Not all Literacy Council students are speakers of other languages: The Literacy Council also tutors American-born adults who never acquired good reading skills in school. In the past year, 262 adult learners took advantage of the Literacy Council’s one-to-one tutoring and its classes in beginning literacy, conversation, pronunciation, writing, civics and basic computer skills.
The Literacy Council estimates that its 162 volunteers donated 17,670 hours of their time during that same period. They are the backbone of the organization. But some things don’t come free: learning materials, computers, standardized language testing, salaries for the three staff members needed to coordinate everything. The Literacy Council couldn’t continue its work – let alone keep expanding its services – without financial support from the community.
Donors to the Literary Council of Frederick County through the Unity Campaign can be sure that their contributions will be put to good use. The Literacy Council was recently named one of 78 nonprofits in the D.C. metropolitan area by the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington selected for its 2019-2020 class, which certified that “The Literacy Council has undergone a rigorous review by a team of experts, and has met the Catalogue’s high standards ... Potential donors can be confident that the nonprofits in the Catalogue are worthy of their support.”
The Literacy Council offers its students the keys to success. And every adult who becomes more literate, or who learns to speak English, strengthens the whole community. Everyone prospers when great companies are attracted to Frederick County by a literate workforce. Everyone benefits when more parents have the tools to guide their children to success in school. Everyone is better off when neighbors attain new skills and become more involved in their neighborhoods.
Ivan Díaz has become one of those involved neighbors. He was amazed at first when he realized that Literacy Council tutors are volunteers. Since then he has learned that, “in America the culture of service to others is taken seriously.” It’s an aspect of the U.S. that he embraces fully. He has volunteered at a local school, a church, and Frederick Community College, starred in a sold-out M.E.T. production for families, and organized games and theater events for parents and children in Baker Park. Every Friday evening Díaz hosts a Facebook radio program for Venezuelan immigrants all over the U.S. He explains American culture, teaches American history, and encourages his listeners to learn English.
Díaz says, “The Literacy Council changes lives, and integrates the parts of our society ... When you teach English, when you teach culture, you make strong the person, you make strong the community.” He adds, “Now it’s my country too. We are ‘United.’”