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Tucson employers are looking to a local nonprofit to help promote literacy

A $2-an-hour raise has Cesar Castellanos beaming.

A few weeks ago, the installer of commercial-heating and air-conditioning systems went to the office at Sun Mechanical Contracting to show off a certificate of completion for an English class. Castellanos says he didn't expect a raise; he just wanted to show off to human-resources assistant director Corey Comeau.

A large percentage of the company's employees primarily speak Spanish. Castellanos says about 70 percent of his 300 or so co-workers are Spanish-speaking.

"You know, I'm always trying to practice my English at work. When I see my boss, I say, 'Good morning,' but he always answers, 'Buenos dias,'" he says, smiling broadly. "I needed more help, especially with my pronunciation. That's been the hardest part."

Comeau says it wasn't just Castellanos' improved English skills that warranted the raise, but his initiative, leadership, good attitude and job skills. Comeau says he recently offered to reimburse employees for English classes, and Castellanos was the first employee to sign up.

"We don't require our employees to know English perfectly when they are hired, but there are people we work with who we know have the potential to become foreman and be promoted. To do that, they need to know more English," Comeau says.

But no reimbursement was necessary: The class Castellanos took was free--and better yet, the organization in charge of the class offered to send a tutor to Sun Mechanical to teach an English class to employees at no charge.

"A lot of employers like Corey are surprised we're out here. They don't know we exist," Lisa Kemper says.

Kemper is the volunteer and community-resources coordinator for Literacy Volunteers of Tucson, a nonprofit that provides one-on-one tutoring to people learning English and to people looking to improve their skills to get a GED. LVT also provides free English classes in schools and libraries throughout Tucson--thanks to some 285 volunteers.

Kemper said people like Castellanos aren't as unusual as some may think: 75 percent of the approximately 500 people served by LVT each year turn to the agency to learn English. While immigration critics complain that Latino immigrants are failing to learn the language, Kemper says Castellanos and other students prove that many immigrants want to and can learn English.

Castellanos was born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico, but has lived legally in the United States for eight years, first in Mississippi, and the past four months in Tucson. He lives in a studio apartment with his wife and two children off Columbus Boulevard.

Down the street is the Martha Cooper Branch Library.

"I went in one day and asked the librarian if she knew about English classes," Castellanos says. "'Yes, right here,' she told me."

For three months, Castellanos showed up at the library once a week after work to improve his English with about 10 other people from his neighborhood. Now, Castellanos says, he's able to help other people in his neighborhood with translations and paperwork.

"That feels good to help," Castellanos says.

Castellanos says he's aware of the perceptions that immigrants do not learn English.

"They are working so hard all day. It's the kind of life that you don't have a lot of time to think about the future," he says. "I've been doing that in Mississippi. Then I started to think about the future."

Although teaching people English is LVT's largest effort, the agency this year found itself talking to employers first. Kemper says some companies want Spanish-speaking employees who are good workers to learn more workplace-specific English skills. Plus, some businesses have seen an increase in the number of English-speaking applicants with inadequate reading and writing skills.

The statistics are good indicators of how illiteracy impacts the economy. Kemper says that according to the Arizona Department of Education, about 20 percent of adults in the state are functionally illiterate.

Kristen McDilda, of the Direct CareGiver Association, says her organization--which offers a dual certification for nursing assistants and home-care providers--is relying on LVT to help them reverse a decline in qualified candidates.

"If you don't have a high school diploma or a GED, we require our applicants to take a test to see if they read at a seventh-grade level," McDilda says. "All of a sudden, we started to notice this year that most of our applicants were testing below that level. Then it became a search to find someone to help."

McDilda says her agency recently sent letters to 58 of the applicants who failed the literacy test; she asked them to contact LVT and sign up with a tutor, then return to re-take the test.

"We're explaining to them its one-on-one tutoring and free. We're starting to track the letters, and 35 people have called," McDilda says.

McDilda says young women who dropped out of high school and didn't get a GED make up the largest number of applicants they've referred to LVT.

"It's too bad, because we have a demand for nursing assistants in Tucson. This is a growing area, and we help place people in those jobs, but first, we need applicants that can read at a seventh-grade level," McDilda says.

Kemper says the partnership with the Direct CareGiver Association has been unique, but it's also a way for LVT to continue its mission.

"We're trying to make literacy relevant for a variety of people. Some want to learn to read so they can read books to their children, and others need to work. Many of these people just fell through the cracks," Kemper says. "All of our clients have taught us that if you solve the literacy issue, the community has fewer problems. It doesn't fix everything, but it's one solution."

More by Mari Herreras

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