When Didia Barajal returned to school after 15 years, with only a junior high education from Mexico, she enrolled in McHenry County College’s Adult Education Program to earn her high school equivalency, also known as a GED.
“I didn’t have an opportunity to go to college when I was younger, but I wanted to be a good role model for my kids,” said Barajal, 35, a machine operator who lives in Harvard.
College now is an option for the single, divorced mother of two teenagers, ages 16 and 13, because she earned her GED two years ago.
Studying for the math portion of the exam was particularly difficult because of the language barrier, but she worked eight months with volunteer literacy tutor Susan Levels of Cary, who helped her learn and made her confidence soar.
“Taking a class not in your language is difficult,” Barajal said. “Susan found a way to communicate with me. She helped me solve algebra problems and learn how to think ahead. Susan believed in me and encouraged me when I thought I couldn’t do it. Susan is a great tutor. She doesn’t think of it as a job – she enjoys it. She always said, ‘I’m working on your time.’ We’re really good friends now.”
For Levels, the feeling is mutual.
“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to tutor,” said Levels, a former finance director at AT&T. “It’s a blessing to be able to give back. When you see the smiles that I see, the reward is 10 times what I put in. It makes me joyful when I get up in the morning.”
Levels said she quit her full-time job to raise her two daughters, who are now college graduates, and was looking to fill her free time with helping people in the community.
“I saw an ad in the paper about the MCC Adult Education Department looking for tutors,” Levels said. “I went to the training and have been a tutor for two years now. It’s so rewarding – it’s better than money,” she said.
To boost students’ confidence in math, Levels said she doesn’t use the word “wrong” during her 90-minute tutoring sessions. Instead, she circles the wrong answer and says, “Let’s talk about this,” or they compare each other’s answers. She also makes herself available to the student through email or texts or face-to-face for questions until they pass their GED exam, no matter how long it takes.
Levels takes her volunteer job seriously and goes the extra mile to remove barriers to help students succeed. For one of her students who had no transportation, she drove from her home in Cary to Harvard once a week to meet with him. She also buys GED workbooks for her students from donations from her supportive network of family and friends.
Levels is one of 133 adult volunteers serving 450 learners a year at MCC, ages 18 and older, helping them improve their abilities in reading, math and English as a second language. Two-thirds of the learners are immigrants, coming from 40 different countries and speaking 25 languages.
Marie Day, coordinator of MCC’s Adult Education and Literacy Support Services, said that the goal of the Adult Basic Education program is to improve a student’s reading and math skills above a ninth-grade level. The goal for students in ESL is to bring their English language skills up to a level that allows them to go into such career pathways as nurses, teachers, engineers or to continue on to college-level classes or continue in careers that they started in their home countries.
“What I admire most about our literacy volunteers is they not only teach reading, math and English, they give students self-confidence, belief in themselves, after they never thought they could do this,” Day said.
Eight-year volunteer Jim Wolfe of Crystal Lake started tutoring a man from Jamaica who didn’t know the alphabet.
“I tutored him in reading, writing and math,” Wolfe said. “Now, he’s reading at a middle-school level. It’s been enjoyable to watch him learn. He is starting to work on getting his citizenship.”
The average age of MCC’s literacy volunteers is 66, including many retirees, such as Margaret Behles, 75, who has been tutoring students for 25 years – the longest Adult Education volunteer in MCC’s history.
“It’s fun and I enjoy working with the students,” said Behles, a retired library aide from Alden-Hebron High School. “I like to help people attain their goals of learning to speak English. We work on writing, grammar, punctuation and tenses. For reading comprehension, we read articles from the newspaper.”
Another longtime volunteer, Lillian Bandelin, 89, retired a few months ago after tutoring for 17 years. She tutored English as a second language and has worked with students from South America, Europe, Russia and Estonia.
“It was fun and I was meeting interesting people,” Bandelin said. “Many students were quite educated; they just didn’t know how to speak English.”
One current student, Iliana Graciano, has a medical degree from Mexico and practiced as a general practitioner, specializing in occupational health, until she came to the U.S. a year ago. She attends ESL classes and has been matched with tutor Jack Wall, a retired Crystal Lake doctor, who has volunteered for the past 11 years. He helps Graciano improve her English skills, so she can complete her medical licensing exam here.
“My goal is to practice medicine here,” Graciano, 46, said. “Jack has medical experience; he answers my questions, corrects my pronunciation and checks my sentences. He helps me a lot.”