The Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania has lived up to its mission statement since its founding in 1985 by empowering adults and families with literacy skills that enable them to lead successful, fulfilled lives as members of our communities. Its teachers, tutors and volunteers have helped students from over 65 countries.
Each decade has brought a new set of challenges to the volunteer-run, privately funded nonprofit organization. The council works in collaboration with Intermediate Unit 1 to provide adult tutoring services through their adult basic education, English as a second language, citizenship preparation and GED test preparation programs while also supporting the families of its students by offering a children’s literacy program. All of the Literacy Council’s classes are free, and while the program has seen growth through the years, nothing has challenged its leaders, board members, teachers and tutors more than the explosive growth they’ve seen since 2020.
“We’ve actually tripled in size since the pandemic,” says LCSWPA Executive Director Brandi Miller. “In a typical year, we’ll see around 250 students. In 2022, we ended with 602 students. Through November 2023, we already have over 500 students.”
The surging demand for ESL classes is due to a growing immigrant population across Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland counties over the past few years. Charleroi, in particular, is home to about 2,000 immigrants from 44 countries, including China, Spain, Indonesia and African countries.
Charleroi is home to a growing Haitian immigrant population fleeing political unrest and increasing gang violence. “There’s an agency that worked with Fourth Street Packaging, Inc. that provided jobs, mostly for the Haitian community,” explains Rachel Zilcosky, supervisor of career readiness and adult education at Intermediate Unit 1 and a Literacy Council board member. “What we’re finding now is family members are now coming because other family members are here. Because of the situation in Haiti, people are leaving and have temporary protective status here in the United States. When they get here, they know there’s family and community.” LCSWPA began offering immigrants ESL classes in 2021, held on Sundays in the back room of a local Haitian grocery store. The classes later moved to Fourth Street Packaging Inc. and now have a permanent home at the Presbyterian Church of Charleroi.
“They come to us for the first reason to learn English,” Miller says. “English is definitely their second language. It can also be their third or fourth or fifth or sixth. We have professionals coming over from different countries … we’ve had students from 69 different counties walk through our doors in Washington County.”
Once these immigrants learn English, the doors open for getting a driver’s license, employment and even citizenship. “They want to get a job, a better job, they want to be able to go to the doctor and understand,” Miller says. “There’s a number of reasons why they come over and why they come to us. Their first barrier is speaking English, and you can’t do much without that. We figure out what kind of goals they want and what they want to achieve, and we try to help them.”
Demand for the classes was so high that they’re now held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, averaging between 70-90 students and include people with professional backgrounds in their countries, ranging from doctors, lawyers and business owners to police officers and teachers.
Part of the rise in immigration to the Charleroi area stems from workers being hired by local businesses. Teaching students to be bilingual helps them obtain employment and higher education here.
“We have a lot of professionals that come over who aren’t able to work because they don’t have university status,” Miller says. “Transcripts don’t transfer over, so they have to take a test to either get their credits transferred so they can attend a university here.” The Haitian population, in particular, has had difficulty since many immigrants fled with no credentials or paperwork to prove their education.
“Once their English skills are improved, some are coming into a high school equivalency or GED class to get that credential so they can get into the universities because they don’t have their transcript showing that they completed high school education,” Zilcosky explains. “We have students now requesting they want to take the GED test so that they can get that secondary school diploma from the state that allows them to pursue post-secondary education.”
That work correlates directly with a positive impact on the local economy. “Our goal and what we’ve been working with the Workforce Board in Washington and Greene counties on is we’re hoping once the students become more comfortable with English, they can get their credentials,” Zilcosky says. “There is a growing need for healthcare workers at every level, at the hospital system.”
They’re working with many students in hopes of fulfilling an economic need for local hospitals. “That’s our goal: to help the population get on their feet, making sure they have their credentials, making sure they have the status they need for employment,” she adds. “Manufacturing and healthcare, especially in this region, because that’s where there’s going to be a need in the coming years, and they’re very interested in working with the immigrant population.”
Miller echoes that sentiment and has already talked with local businesses with staffing needs. “We have companies that are actually coming to us and asking us if we know anybody who would work in their warehouses,” Miller says. “So, companies are coming to us and asking if we have anyone interested.”
With a growing immigrant population comes an increasing need for services and resources. Zilcosky says there has been an incredible response from all community partners in the Charleroi area.
“They are revitalizing the community,” she says. “They’ve opened businesses, and I feel like the community is pulling together to figure out how to best serve the population, get them what they need, get them engaged in the workforce, get them engaged in the schools, so their kids feel welcome.” That can start both with English classes but also with continuing education. The Literacy Council partners with IU1 on the GED side to provide adult education classes and teachers. While IU1 receives state and federal grant money, the Literacy Council is a nonprofit and relies on fundraising and donations.
“There’s a need for fiscal support, and also, we have a need for getting more people to tutor,” Zilcosky says. “We’re definitely in demand. We need more tutors and aid in all four counties.” Miller sees their services as a win-win for both the community and for its newest residents. “They want to go to class,” she stresses. “They want to try to better their lives, and they want to work and help the workforce, and they want to be productive members of our society and our communities.”