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Literacy Nonprofit Brings Together Berkshire Residents For A Common Goal

The Literacy Network of South Berkshire logo
The Literacy Network of South Berkshire

It’s a busy month for a non-profit organization that helps Berkshire County residents learn English.

Jennifer Vrabel is the executive director of the Literacy Network of South Berkshire – also known as LitNet.

“We are a nonprofit that provides free educational support for adults," said Vrabel. "Our mission is to provide one-on-one tutoring that can help transform the lives of adult learners, both immigrants and folks who are U.S. born through the power of literacy, education, and advocacy.”

LitNet trains volunteer tutors and matches them with clients, mostly immigrants who speak English as a second or third language. Some are trying to get their high school equivalency or are working toward citizenship and trying to pass their naturalization exam. But some come to LitNet  starting almost from scratch.

“For those folks, we’re trying to figure out what they need to survive day to day," explained Vrabel. "Do they need vocabulary for on the job? Do they need to learn how to make a phone call? Do they need to know how to say they’re going to be sick for work? Or are they trying to interact with their kids’ teachers? So we try to figure out what are those basic need they need to learn – numbers, colors, months all that. It can be very basic or some of our students are working towards getting a better job. Maybe they need to tweak their resume, they’re learning their writing skills, trying to improve a specific educational goal. Maybe they want to go to [Berkshire Community College] or some other kind of higher education and we figure out what they need and try to match them with the support they need to reach those goals.”

One such match is that between tutor Abigail Rogers-McKee and student Dilanny Pimentel. Pimentel, 24, came from the Dominican Republican five years ago.

“It was hard, because I didn’t want to leave my family in DR, but my mom was here and she inspired me to come here with my sister," said Pimentel. "It was hard to communicate with people, but I just went to school and tried to get better.”

She’s a student at Berkshire Community College in Great Barrington, and is still working out what path to take in her education.

“I wanted to go to college to do – I would like to be a nurse," she told WAMC. "And I also like systems. So, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

For now, she has to get her high school equivalency diploma. In the courtyard behind the hotel in Great Barrington where Pimentel works, she goes over math problems together with Rogers-McKee.

When asked if she liked math, Pimentel laughed and said tenatively, “um… a little bit.”

“We’re working on her liking it a more," said Rogers-McKee. “Actually she’s very good at it, but she needs more confidence I think. She gets the right answer but she’s always surprised. So that’s part of what we’re working on so she realizes how much she does know.”

Rogers-McKee, 62, is a retired risk management consultant from Egremont.

“A friend of a friend who worked for LitNet asked me if I wanted to become a tutor, and she was very enthusiastic and so I thought it would be a great thing to do," she told WAMC. "And I thought it would be something that I could actually do to make a difference at the community level, especially given what personally how I feel about what’s going on in the country right now, I thought it would be good if I could do something to help people in the community and help people achieve their goals in some ways.”

While Pimentel’s educational future is undecided, the progress she’s made with Rogers-McKee and LitNet is already paying off.

“I can teach my mom," she told WAMC. "I can have a conversation with American people or from another country who speak English.”

But for now, it’s back to work.

On Saturday, LitNet holds its annual fundraiser at Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Massachusetts – a day after a round of new citizens, including some LitNet students, are naturalized at a ceremony at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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