2018-09-01 / Features

Well Read

Mid-State Literacy Council Gets Rebrand to Help Further Its Mission of Literacy for All
Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

If you’re a native English speaker, talking to someone about a trip you’re taking is a simple social pleasure. If you’re not a native English speaker, however, it can feel like walking through a linguistic minefield, thanks to the language’s many maddening quirks and inconsistencies.

“The way we use prepositions can be a big problem,” says Carol Pollard, a retired English professor from Lock Haven University. “We say ‘in the morning,’ and ‘in the afternoon,’ but not ‘in the night.’ We get on a bus, on a plane, but in the car. Just weird little things like that.”

Pollard, a State College resident, has spent the last 10 years volunteering as a tutor and teacher for Mid-State Literacy Council, a nonprofit organization started in 1971 to bring literacy in all forms to adults in Centre and Clearfield counties. From English as a Second Language students who’ve immigrated to the U.S. to those who grew up here and emerged from our area’s school systems with only elementary-level reading skills, 11 percent of adults in Centre County and 14 percent of adults in Clearfield County are illiterate.

And although Mid-State Literacy Council has empowered and educated thousands of adults in its 47 years, there’s a decent chance it hasn’t been on your radar, says executive director Amy Wilson.

“We work so hard to run a really high-quality education program that changes people’s lives, but we’re so hidden,” says Wilson, who has worked for MSLC off and on since 1988. “This program was started by volunteers … and marketing-wise it has just been a hodge-podge from every decade, nothing congruent. Our messaging was clear, but not our presentation.”

That changes this month with the unveiling of Mid-State Literacy Council’s new logo, website and branded marketing materials created by volunteers with this year’s [CP]2’s Brand[Aid] effort, which is free to one lucky local nonprofit annually.

“We know branding is not in the budget of many nonprofits, so each year we try to identify one that really needs a refresh. The nonprofit we select is usually doing everything well but its brand is holding them back,” says Brad Groznik, Brand[Aid] organizer and local PR professional. “When we met with Mid-State Literacy Council earlier this year to discuss their application, we were shocked to learn how much they’re helping the community. None of us realized how pervasive the problems of illiteracy are in our community.”

So [CP]2, also known as Central Pennsylvania Creative Professionals, pooled the volunteer resources and talents of creative professionals from several area businesses to give MSLC the boost it needed.

“I feel like it’s a rocket launching us so we can reach more people,” says Wilson of their new look and marketing strategy. “With a clear presentation I’m hoping the community understands the value of literacy, how powerful literacy is in the community, what their neighbors and friends are doing as volunteers, and what their neighbors and friends are doing learning and growing and gaining new skills.”

What they’re teaching and learning involves a wide range of educational services based on the myriad needs of community members. Some are gaining basic literacy skills, having never read a word of English. Others are studying for their GED or working toward becoming U.S. citizens. Some are learning specific literacy skills to help them get a job or use a computer. Others are trying to regain literacy skills lost through traumatic brain injuries or illnesses. And many are building healthcare literacy skills to be able to better care for themselves and their families.

Amy WilsonAmy Wilson“We do really emphasize the ability to access healthcare, whether it’s through listening, speaking, reading or writing. People don’t always know how to access emergency services, or when to, or they don’t know what information you’re going to need to tell (a first responder),” Wilson says of the need for the nonprofit’s English for Doctor Visits class, which is as popular as it is important. “The class will go over how to say where you are, how to describe symptoms. Because they will ask all these questions, like ‘Is the person conscious?’ Well, what does that mean if you don’t have English? Or ‘Can you describe what happened?’ So there are a lot of things emergency responders ask, and we want to make sure they can answer those questions. Sometimes when there’s an emergency the window is so narrow, time-wise, so if they know what to do, maybe they won’t delay.”

The class also tours the Centre County Women’s Resource Center and visits the local police station to interact with officers. “And they do that because in many cultures and countries, people are really afraid of the police, and so they won’t call them,” Wilson says. “So we want them to be more comfortable reaching out for help.”

Pollard’s Grammar & Vocabulary class is another popular one, so popular in fact that many students opt to take it more than once — in part because the class is always changing.

“I don’t have a set curriculum. I always do English verbs, but the material I emphasize depends on the class. If they want a particular thing, I will focus on that,” says Pollard, who recently was given the Ruth Kistler Award for her longstanding service to the organization. Pollard asks her students for specific vocabulary questions or other English-related needs and interests, and then crafts her semester-long class to their wishes. “They nearly always want doctor and medical information. Sometimes they need to understand the school system their kids are going into. And they’re currently very baffled by the American political system.”

No matter the subject, classes also give students the opportunity to practice conversational English, share information across cultures, and make friends.

“These students are so noisy in class sometimes, they’re laughing, they’re talking, they’re having social activity,” says Karen Loerch, MSLC’s literacy coordinator. “They have very quiet, private, isolated lives because they can’t speak to people, they can’t just go next-door and talk to the neighbors. So the tutors come in and really encourage them to communicate with each other. And they leave smiling, and you just think, ‘That is really wonderful.’”

Though group classes give that kind of social outlet, an even deeper connection can come from one-on-one tutoring, which is what many of MSLC’s students and tutors do. The organization currently has about 180 volunteer tutors mostly working one-on-one with students once a week for a couple hours per session. Each tutor is trained and assisted by MSLC staff and then is specially paired with a student that matches their interests or personality. More often than not, a friendship forms.

“The student often gives as much to the tutor as the tutor gives to the student,” Loerch says.
Lina Chung is one such student. She arrived from South Korea 10 years ago with her husband, Jinkun Lee, and their two young children. Lee was a Penn State PhD candidate, but Chung spoke no English and had no family or friends here.

“My tutor and I, we had a really good relationship with each other. She was a Penn State student. It was her first time teaching English to a foreigner, so she was also a beginner,” says Chung. “If I have some problem with a doctor’s appointment or school issue, if I had to send email to a teacher, she helped me a lot.”

While the American tutor taught Chung English, the shy mother taught her new young friend about Asian culture and her home country. When the Penn Stater graduated after two years of tutoring Chung, she had trouble finding work and, with the encouragement of Chung, opted to spend two years teaching English in South Korea.

Chung, meanwhile, continued with other tutors for another few years until she felt proficient in her new country’s language. Today, she volunteers for MSLC as a teaching assistant.

“From last year I start to volunteer for Mid-State, because I know their difficulty and I know their feeling — second language people. And I got a lot of help from Mid-State, so I really want to help people,” she says. “We can learn English from Mid-State, but also when I came here I was so lonely, because I didn’t know anybody here. So when I start to go to Mid-State I could make friends there. It’s my starting point of my social life.”

Giving both ESL (English as a Second Language) and ABE (Adult Basic Education) students the skills to find a job, communicate with a doctor or just socialize with others is what makes MSLC so magical, says ESL coordinator Tracy Roth.

“It’s nice to see that they gain independence and autonomy, in small ways and in big ways,” she says.

“People get jobs, that’s a huge one. But one student went out and bought something with coins because she had accumulated all of these coins because she didn’t know how to pay with them. It’s those little things too.

“Another student walked in with her bus pass one day and said, ‘I got this on my own!’ She was so excited about that. You know, they’re adults, they want to be able to function in society. And that’s another part of it, that they can express themselves. There’s so much inside. These are people who are very well-educated, and they raise families, and they feel very hidden and isolated. So it allows them to really show who they are when they start to be able to speak the language.” •SCM

The Vision Behind the New Logo

- Created by Gavin Robinson, graphic designer at Rowland Creative -

Created by Gavin Robinson, graphic designer at Rowland CreativeCreated by Gavin Robinson, graphic designer at Rowland Creative“The Mid-State Literacy Council provides a variety of services to the community, so I wanted a logo that could represent learning, reading, study and more. An open book was an easy choice that I think can stand for those themes universally.

“The page shapes created from the negative space feel familiar and are relatively easy to understand. As things evolved while sketching I also tried to emphasize the staggered verticals of the pages because I like the implied idea of growth and improvement that they can represent. In the end, the simple, clean shapes and typeface gave the mark a timeless feel without feeling dated.”

Nearly two dozen creative professionals have lent their time and talents to the project. Some of the local businesses contributing include:

Dana M. Ray
Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications
Groznik PR
Loaded Creative
MoJo Active
Penn State Press
Penn State World Campus
Rowland Creative
Snavely Associates
State College Magazine

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