The need to read; Local volunteers help adults overcome life-limiting reading, math, language deficiencies

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Retired teacher and longtime Dearborn resident Edward Roberge is a volunteer adult reading tutor at Siena Literacy Center, 16888 Trinity, in northwest Detroit.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – Helping people in small but measurable ways, by teaching them how to read medication instructions or how to calculate grocery bargains, are milestones Siena Literacy Center volunteers enjoy celebrating.

Donna Nesbitt of Detroit, director the of Siena Literacy Center, 16888 Trinity in northwest Detroit, said the staff and volunteer tutors provide literacy, math, computer and English as a second language tutoring for adults to help them change their lives in a positive way. The center is in the former convent building at Christ the King Roman Catholic parish.

Siena Literacy Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to improving lives by providing basic education for adult learners using trained volunteer tutors. Since 1995, more than 600 tutors have helped more than 2,000 adult learners meet the challenges of their everyday lives.

  For more information about the services provided by the center, or to volunteer, call 313 532-8404 or go to

“We try to make sure that when learners leave here after every session that they can take whatever it is you worked on that day and use it in the real world, in a real world application,” Nesbitt said. “Because after all, that is what learning is about – getting information that will impact and improve your life.”

She said student successes include improved job skills, improved scores on tests needed to enter training programs, passing a driver’s license test, registering to vote, and becoming involved in their own children’s education.

Sister Lenore Boivin, Order of Preachers, the center’s reading coordinator and a Dominican nun who lives in Taylor, said she helped an adult student use a smart phone application and a computer to enroll in a grocery store discount savings program.

“The next week (when) he came back he said, ‘I saved something like $5,’ and the next time he came back it had doubled,” Boivin said. “It was really significant for him, a person who really needs to pinch his pennies. It really helped.”  

Retired high school teacher and counselor, and former longtime Dearborn resident Edward Roberge began tutoring at the center eight months ago. He said he spends two hours a week helping an adult at a second grade reading level hone their skills, and spends at least another hour a week preparing for each learning session.  

Roberge said the adult learners at the center are highly motivated and grateful, and the issue of adult illiteracy is greater than most people realize. Learning disabilities, school social promotions and immigrants unschooled in their country of origin account for some of the adult students’ needs.

He said he grew up reading, and often people forget that others do not have the same skills or opportunities.

“What I realized is that I am working with people who can’t really read magazines and newspapers and books just because they are unable, but they have the desire,” Roberge said. “A lot of times I think we as middle class people underestimate the fact that there are many people we probably have physical contact with in the day who don’t even share those opportunities to read magazines, newspapers and books.”

“(Reading) continues to be very much a part of my life. It is a source of ideas. I think as a culture if we want to strengthen our society, we need to be doing more reading and not less.”

Roberge said it is important to help immigrants learn English.

“If there are people who want to learn English, then those of us who are already skilled in it can volunteer,” he said, “Instead of sitting back and armchair quarterbacking what should be, we can get out of the armchair and get out there and say, ‘I’ll help you.’”

Sister Mary Anna Riley, of the servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who lives in Dearborn Heights, is the center’s assessment and data management coordinator. When she is not collecting data that helps maintain their funding, she teaches adult learners how to use the center’s computers.

She said she loves watching new students’ faces light up when they achieve a learning goal.

“We had a gentleman who one day came back and he was so excited because he read a street sign,” she said. “He was so excited, and those are the types of things that we find in our students progressively.

“Most of our students are low literacy, and in order to help them, we have to teach very basic primary grade material. When the lights go on, it is a wonder. It is just wonderful to see that happen.”

She said while some of the volunteer tutors are former teachers, many are not.

“Our tutors are all volunteers,” Riley said. “Most of them are just volunteers who are sitting at home wondering what to do, and somebody gets a hold of them and says, ‘I know a job that you can do – helping a student.’”

She said some volunteers are initially fearful, but when they discover the level that the adult learners are at, they realize they can make a difference in their lives as a tutor. She said tutoring is one-on-one, which lowers the learner’s anxiety level.

“Knowing that I am doing something to help literacy, to help the students make progress in their lives so that they can go on and advance a little bit,” Riley said. “because many can’t have jobs because they can’t read at the correct level or fill out an application, we even help with those, and with resumes.

“When I go home at night, I feel good because I have come in contact with so many wonderful students who, when they first walked in, were terrified. Now they stroll in here, they know what to do, and they feel good. It is wonderful.”

As a volunteer, Roberge knows his tutoring is important to the adult learner he helps.

He tells potential volunteers that adult learners on the waiting list for tutors are highly motivated and extremely grateful for help. He said what he might consider a small contribution of his time is extremely significant to his student.

“They want to learn, and you may be the difference between an opportunity that they have, or that they continue to wait for,” he said.

Roberge believes adult illiteracy is greater than most imagine it to be.

“What I see in the media and what I continue to read is that the average reading level of people in our country continues to slide down,” Roberge said. “I think if we want to strengthen our society as a country and as a democracy, it is incumbent that we get people to be able to read and understand on a higher level, not a lower level.”