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Literacy Tutors Bring English to Adults

Luz Marina Zuleta worries about her mother. Each day as Zuleta goes to work with Fairfax County, she leaves her 64-year-old mom Gloria Sotomonte in her Oak Hill home.

Sotomonte emigrated to the United States five years ago, and now, thanks to the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and one dedicated volunteer, Sotomonte is learning English for the first time.

Zuleta, a naturalized citizen, said that unlike in some European and Asian countries, there isn't much emphasis on learning English in Colombia. But ever since Sotomonte joined her daughter in the Northern Virginia, she has been anxious to pick up the native language, Zuleta said. "Now, she's able to do the basics." She can answer the phone, take the bus and dial 9-1-1 if there is an emergency, which is all comforting to Zuleta. Each week, Sotomonte boards a bus in Oak Hill for the Reston-Herndon senior center in Reston. "Safety is my number one concern," Zuleta said.

Zuleta, who works for Fairfax County, says she sees a lot of elderly people who do not speak English. "They are so secluded and they look so lonely," she said. "I didn't want that for my mother. She's a lucky one."

Zuleta said she wished the tutors were able to make house calls because a lot of adults and seniors do not have the ability to meet at a public place, like a senior center or a community library. Due to legal and liability issues, the council insists that its tutors and students meet in public areas, said Kathy Parisi, the director of volunteers and special events.

TWICE A WEEK, Zuleta is teamed up with first-time tutor Joe Marhoefer, one of the Literacy Council's trained teachers. "I've learned a lot, too," said Marhoefer who conducts the entire tutorial in English. He doesn't speak Spanish. "I learned that I should be encouraging and not critical. Plus, it's all about repetition, repetition," he said. "I think the biggest problem is that I am not a skilled teacher. I think probably someone with more skills could do a better job."

Zuleta said she and her mother couldn't be happier with the twice-weekly oral lessons. "I've seen progress. She's no longer afraid to speak."

For Marhoefer, a Reston patent attorney, there have been no "miracles," just "slow but steady progress" with his only student. "Gloria just loves to learn and loves to study," he said.

Her favorite English words? "I love you," she said.

Zuleta said she understands what her mother is going through trying to learn a new language as an adult. "It took me five years to feel comfortable speaking and hearing the language, after I moved here 10 years ago and I came when I was 33," she said. Sotomonte doesn't like it when her son-in-law turns on a Spanish-language television show, Zuleta said, adding that her mom prefers watching the nightly news and religious programs like Billy Graham. "She keeps pushing us to only speak English at home," she said. "Sometimes we just want to speak Spanish, but we know it is good for her to hear English."

Currently the council has more than 800 volunteers for its adult programs, but Parisi said they are always looking for more dedicated volunteers to help teach English to residents from around the world. After an intense training program, tutors, like Marhoefer, are expected to commit to at least nine to 12 months and tutorials range from one to three hours a week.

"Obviously, this is rewarding in and of itself," Marhoefer said. "I really think you have to try and give something back to your community."