Judi Ickes didn’t know it at the time, but 10 years ago, when a tutor for the Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania asked if she could use a room in First Presbyterian Church 1793 to teach an ESL (English as a Second Language) student, Ickes, a retired Spanish and home economics teacher, would find a new purpose.
Ickes wasn’t familiar with the literacy council, but the tutor mentioned there was an upcoming tutor training class. So, two weeks later, Ickes and a few others attended.
While Ickes was there, recalled Kris Drach, a tutor and literacy council board president, three Latina women knocked on the door to inquire about classes.
Drach asked if any of the tutors spoke Spanish, and Ickes raised her hand.
“The rest is history,” said Ickes, who was honored with a 10-year Tutor Service Award during a May 10 recognition ceremony at the literacy council’s headquarters in Washington.
WCCF (Washington County Community Foundation) received the Community Champion Award for its dedication and commitment to helping the literacy council grow.
For Ickes, who currently teaches three ESL classes a week, tutoring immigrants was a perfect fit.
Over the past decade, Ickes has taught all levels of ESL, and she respects the courage and dedication of students committed to improving their literacy skills.
“But it’s much more than just helping them improve their literacy skills. We take them for driver’s tests, go to doctor’s visits, help them fill out forms whenever they need a little extra help,” she said. “Once you get the students, you help them whenever you can. (Knowing the language) helps the students be brave enough to go out into society, get a job, be a part of their community.”
Executive Director Brandi Miller thanked WCCF for its financial contributions to the literacy council over the years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
WCCF provided two sizable grants: one that enabled the literacy council to purchase Chromebooks and mobile hot spots to teach classes remotely, and another that the council used to start a Student Emergency Relief Fund to assist immigrant students by purchasing grocery cards, gas cards, and gift cards to help students pay for utilities and other expenses.
“The immense support of WCCF has enabled us to provide essential services and programming to our students and their families that is critical to their assimilation into our society,” said Miller.
Betsie Trew, president and CEO of WCCF, said the foundation has long supported the mission of the literacy council and credited “effective and visionary leadership,” the “dedication of lots of volunteers,” and the generosity of donors and community partners with the nonprofit’s growth.
“It was was easy for (WCCF) to see this was a charity that deserved financial support. We’re very happy to be included in your list of donors,” Trew said.
The literacy council has around 50 volunteer tutors and ABE aides, while student enrollment in the ESL and GED classes has skyrocketed to more than 500. The council has also provided services to immigrants from 67 countries, and has helped students obtain U.S. citizenship.
Miller said tutors have volunteered more than 7,560 hours so far this year.
The council has expanded services and offers 26 classes at six Washington County sites, in the Mon Valley, Chartiers-Houston, Peters Township and Washington, in addition to helping students find solutions to unemployment and other issues.
Also last week, the literacy council launched a newly designed website that will make it easier for people to contact the organization, access services, and find information.
The most significant feature that visitors to the site can access is a “translate” button in the upper right corner. The language switcher button enables visitors to select one of more than 130 languages, and the website converts to that language.
“This website takes us to a new level,” said Miller, adding that students and tutors now will be able to enroll online, something they weren’t able to do before.
Ickes said she and her fellow tutors find satisfaction in their students’ achievements. One former student, who now lives in Arizona and keeps in frequent touch with Ickes, told her that she and a friend who was visiting from Venezuela drove to visit her brother in New England and stopped in New York City for a few days of sightseeing.
“She was so proud of herself for being able to get around and to use her English, and I was so proud of her,” said Ickes. “We’re just so proud of all of their achievements, especially the women who take classes. We empower women, and that’s really important. Tutoring really is so meaningful. We just fall in love with our students, and that’s why we keep doing it.”
For information on the literacy council, or to volunteer, visit the website at https://www.lcswpa.org.