Program provides literacy, confidence for Placer County adults

By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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The Placer Adult Literacy Service is a free Auburn-based, confidential program that offers one-on-one volunteer coaches for Placer County adults who want to improve their reading skills. The Journal sat down with Paula Westeren, the program’s coordinator, and Jerry Mohlenbrok, one of the program’s reading coaches, to learn a little bit more about PALS. Q: When did PALS start and why? Paula Westeren: It started in 1985 with a five-year grant from the State Library to begin library literacy programs throughout the state of California. Q: Where does funding come from now? PW: PALS receives funding from Placer County and a grant from the California Library Literacy Services. But that funding is in jeopardy with the governor’s proposed budget. We recognize we all have to participate in taking our hit, but the reduction (in funding) is a disservice to over 20,000 Californians who have no other options in improving their literacy skills. Q: How do potential learners sign up? PW: Learners make an appointment and they meet with me, and I conduct a fairly simple assessment. This assessment decides the level and placement in the materials we use. We meet learners (at the level) where they are and take them as far as they want to go. We look at what do they want to accomplish with improved skills. Everybody comes in at a different level. Q: What are some things learners want to know how to do when enrolling in this program? PW: Reading books to kids, reading medicine labels, creating resumes for jobs, help filling out a job application. That is real life learning. That is what they need help with. When learners come and meet with me they think their skills are much lower than they are, and they see themselves as unsuccessful. A boost in self-confidence is more important than reading skills in some cases. Q: What is one story you can think of that shows how this program impacts learners? PW: There was one learner, she came in and she said, ‘I think I’m in the wrong place.’ She had worked as a bus driver and had to pass a written test and couldn’t do it. She phoned me a few months ago and said, ‘I got a promotion at work. It has changed how I think about myself and my abilities.’ So, again, it really does end up being about the self-confidence and self esteem. Q: Is there a typical learner? PW: There is no one picture. I have learners in the program from 18 to 85 (years old), all different cultural backgrounds, all different socioeconomic backgrounds. Q: How long have you been a reading coach? Jerry Mohlenbrok: Ten years. I have been working with the same learner for that entire period. It turns out the gentleman is a Californian. He grew up in Southern California and went through their school system down there. He was promoted up through 11th grade. He has told me different times the teachers told him he was stupid. He dropped out and never learned how to read. Q: What do you enjoy about being a coach? JM: To me it’s very gratifying personally to see progress being made, albeit very slow. One of the things I have been able to see is a great improvement in his self-esteem, his confidence. His reading ability has certainly improved, as has his writing. Q: What would you say to encourage others to get involved as coaches? JM: I would encourage people to learn about the program … and to other people who may not be interested in becoming a reading coach, to become aware of the program … so if they know someone who has a limited literacy capability, that they make them aware of this free service. For more information on PALS call (530) 886-4530, e-mail or visit Reach Bridget Jones at