Alex Tokarev was a successful college-educated software engineer in Moscow. But when he moved to the United States, neither he nor his family could speak English. The English as a Second Language classes he took were too formal. Tokarev didn't just want to learn proper English — he wanted to learn about America.
Then he found the Loudoun Literacy Council.
"They're not only educational," Tokarev said at the Loudoun Literacy Council's 25th anniversary celebration, held at the Belmont Country Club in Ashburn. "They also help us feel cultural growth."
Now, all of Tokarev's family in the United States takes classes with the Loudoun Literacy Council. It's made a world of difference for his parents, he said.
"For them, [the move] was very painful," Tokarev said. "They were scared and lost. Now my parents are very thankful for the Loudoun Literacy Council and so am I."
SINCE IT WAS founded in 1980, more than 2,300 Loudoun citizens have benefited from the Loudoun Literary Council's services. The council offers classes in English as a Second Language, basic literacy, GED test preparation, early reading skills for at-risk children and more.
The tutors are local volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. Phyllis Heller was named tutor recruiter of the year in 2004, and spoke about the strong bonds tutors and students forge.
Heller has lived in several different countries and could empathize with the feeling of alienation caused by not knowing the local language. Six years ago, she read a notice advertising a training session for tutors.
"I thought, this is a way I can help," she said.
A few years later, while waiting to hear from an Iranian woman who had returned home just before Sept. 11, 2001 and was having trouble re-entering the United States, Heller realized she had a bevy of students within arm's reach: the Hispanic service people working in Leisure World.
Now, five other Leisure World residents have joined Heller in teaching English to the employees.
For Heller, the most rewarding experience came after a student gave birth. She didn't need an interpreter in the delivery room.
"Being a sentimental type, that brought tears to my eyes," Heller said.
THE LOUDOUN Literacy Council also helps at-risk children get a jump start on reading. It works closely with the local chapter of Head Start, a national organization dedicated to assisting low-income families with preschool children. Head Start serves 100 preschool children in the county.
Mondana Mortazavi, a member of the parent council for Head Start, has two children who benefited from the partnership between Head Start and the Loudoun Literacy Council.
"They have a love for reading and for books," she said.
But the trickiest group for the Loudoun Literacy Council to help out is, in some ways, the most desperate: adult native-born Americans who cannot read.
Low literacy levels affect everything from employability to health and quality of life, said Deborah West, president of Loudoun Literacy Council's board.
"It behooves us as a community to not only get warm and fuzzy about the immigrants we're helping," West said. "If we can improve reading skills, we can improve the overall economic health of Loudoun County."
YADIR RUIZ, the council's president, came to the country as a child and didn't speak any English, so she understands what that feeling is like. She was teased about her foreign name and called everything from Yoda to Junkyard.
"I couldn't understand what my teacher was saying to me, couldn't make friends," she said. "I was isolated, lonely."
Now she speaks perfect English without a hint of an accent. She understands that immigrants aren't just looking for a language, as Tokarev explained; it's also acceptance.
"It's not just literacy, education," Ruiz said. "It's bigger than that. It's assimilation into American life."