Book To The Future

There is a direct correlation between illiteracy and poverty, which inspires Claudia and Dennis Dresser to volunteer with Kauai Adult Literacy and improve the lives of their students

In Hawaii, one in every six adults struggles with reading and writing, including almost 5,600 on Kauai. Some 75 percent of unemployed adults have difficulties with English. This is not just about enjoying a good book or reading the newspaper — 43 percent of those with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty.

The reasons for illiteracy are varied — a family’s economic situation, coming from another country, or having a learning style not compatible with traditional schooling — but it does not have to be a lifelong condition.

One man is doing all he can to bring literacy to more people. Meet Dennis Dresser, Kauai Adult Literacy coordinator. The spry 83-year-old is motivating others to join him in helping people achieve their goals.

“Helping people whoever and wherever they are has always been my passion,” he says.

When a person has an opportunity to improve their English reading, writing and pronunciation skills through groups like Hawaii Literacy, Kauai Adult Literacy’s parent organization, they have a better chance of acquiring jobs and succeeding in life.

“English is the major business language in the world, and its impact and breadth are growing every year,” says Dresser, who retired many years ago as staff quality engineer for General Atomics’ Predator program.

The local literacy organization he leads is for adults age 18 and older who are familiar with some English. Students start by taking an assessment test to determine the level at which they will begin. And it’s quite a balancing act.

“We do not want them to start at too low a level because they’ll get bored and quit the program. Similarly, we do not want to start them at too high a level because they’ll get frustrated and quit the program,” explains Dresser. “Like the three bears, we choose a starting level that is ‘just right.'”

Books and accompanying workbooks range from the basic ABC’s to an eighth-grade learning level. Every student works their way up through the different stages at their own pace, always with the option of having extra reading and assignments, and even can go beyond the preliminary levels and progress to various series. There are no mandatory completion dates, and students can learn on an ongoing basis, meeting one to two times a week for an hour or an hour-anda-half, one-on-one with their tutors. The best part about the program is that, except for the books, it is entirely free of charge.

Students come from a variety of backgrounds, and many are from other countries. Some want to improve their skills in order to gain employment or obtain their GED.

There have been many success stories since Dresser started volunteering for the organization in 2007, but he recalls one particular foreign student he spent more than four years tutoring who is now speaking English “like a concierge in a fine hotel,” he says. That same student has gone on to manage a business.

Though he personally teaches about one to three students at a time, depending on the need, Dresser can’t do it by himself and is hoping to recruit more tutors. While he has grown the program from one student and two tutors to a high of about 35 tutors — and currently some 18 tutors and 20 students — he wants to inspire others to pitch in their time so that more people can reach their goals.

Tutors learn how to teach basic reading and writing skills, and must complete a 16-hour training workshop that is split into four sessions. Dresser’s wife Claudia, who specializes in adult education and training, educates and prepares these tutors to become nationally certified. Once they have finished the course, tutors are paired with at least one student with whom they arrange times, dates and places to meet, such as libraries or community centers.

Though Dresser is the current face of Kauai Adult Literacy program, his wife was the impetus to their involvement. Several years ago, Claudia saw a flier about the program that announced a meeting she couldn’t attend because of a prior commitment, so she sent her husband. The rest is history.

The ambitious duo moved to Kauai from California in the mid-2000s. As educators (during his career, Dresser developed and documented a missile contamination control cleaning, packaging and testing training program, and taught the procedures and tests through a school called Specialty Training), they make a dynamic team, and together enjoy improving others’ lives.

“They get to meet their dreams; do what they want to do in life,” says Claudia of the program’s students.

“Tutoring is like teaching your children as they grow up — seeing them falter, recover and expanding in life,” says Dennis.

The difference, however, is that while children have a multitude of things they must learn all at once, adults have a more committed and pointed focus.

“Adults being tutored have a deeper feeling for life, one full of their culture — a life of problems they wish to correct with English,” says Dennis. “Adults learn faster … because of their driven goals.”

For more information about Hawaii Literacy, visit hawaiiliteracy.org, call Dennis Dresser at 332-5544 or email islandvision@hawaii.rr.com.

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