Thursday was recognized as International Literacy Day, a day in which people around the world take time to recognize the importance of education and literacy improvement efforts in their communities.
Homer residents JoAnn Dukelow and Mary Van Miller were no different, though they chose to celebrate a day early on Wednesday afternoon with a luncheon at the Cortland Community Center.
The celebration also served to mark the two-year anniversary of the English as a second language, or ESL program, they started at the community center two years ago. They say the classes have helped dozens of adults find jobs and improve their English skills since then.
In 2014, when the Cortland Community Group was planning to open the successor to the East End Community Center at 90 Central Ave., Dukelow and Van Miller were among the first to volunteer to hold a program there.
The goal of the program was to create a space where people could better develop their English speaking, reading and writing skills. It was geared for use by people from all backgrounds.
On Wednesday, Dukelow said since then, volunteers like Van Miller and herself have helped dozens of people strengthen their language skills. Last year alone, the community center’s ESL program helped25 people from 11 countries, she said. “New Reader’s Press has this thing called the National Book Foundation,” Dukelow said. “They supplied us with almost $2,000 worth of books and materials. The Cortland Community Foundations also gave us a grant. It’s pretty amazing.”
Van Miller said the ESL classes have a heavy emphasis on writing and holding conversations, which seems to help students not only practice their language skills but become familiar with each other.
But she thinks it’s the laid-back environment and the relationships they develop along the way that has kept students coming back, she said.
“It’s very informal,” Van Miller said. “When people come, they’re often shy and they don’t want to make mistakes. No one has to be afraid to be here and many people relax. It’s a family atmosphere here.”
Over light lunches, people were openly conversing in the language they had trouble navigating only months before. One person could even be heard talking about how the class helped them apply for and secure the job they will start next week.
Cortland resident Jenna Antonova said she could relate and had attended the meeting to personally thank Dukelow and Van Miller.
Antonova said she had emigrated to Cortland from Crimea, Russia, seven years ago and with the help of ESL classes, learned to better understand English and today she works as a substitute teacher.
“I could read, write but it was hard to talk for me,” she said. “And I needed to make new friends. It helped a lot.”
The ESL class has even gotten the attention of Joyce Allen, a family development advocate at CAPCO and director of the agency’s adult education and literacy volunteer program.
Allen said the programs are intended for people who have a better grasp of English, but after learning more about what Dukelow and Van Miller have created, she expects to collaborate with them more often.
“JoAnn (Dukelow) said34 percent of Cortland County is illiterate,” she said. “That’s a huge number. I’m sure that in the future we’ll be working pretty closely together.”
Dukelow and Van Miller said it’s great that so many people have benefited from the class and even better that they’ve been able to find work and settle down in the community — after all, that’s always been the goal.
The duo added they are eager to start working with more people and helping them as soon as possible but they said those interested in taking classes should expect to gain more than an education.
“We’re all very close, the students and the teachers,” Van Miller said.
“We become their extended family,” Dukelow added. “And it’s nice, because they become our extended family, too.”