Location: Concord, NC
Caitlyn Mitchell liked her job as a substitutehigh school Spanish teacher in York, Pennsylvania, but she concluded at the end of her term that she didn’t want to be a classroom teacher. “I still wanted to be able to use my Spanish,” she says. “And I liked the education aspect of my job, but I didn’t want to be a teacher.” She decided she’d try doing something involving English as a Second Language, so she took a part-time job as a receptionist for the York County Literacy Council in York, Pennsylvania. Being bilingual allowed her to pitch in with other things for the council, like interpreting, translating fliers, and proctoring high school equivalency tests, but Caitlyn still felt underutilized. “I knew I was capable of doing more than receptionist work,” she says.
In December 2016, Caitlyn traveled to North Carolina to visit family and decided she’d like to move. “It was still warm down here,” Caitlyn says. “So I started looking for a job.” She emailed the Cabarrus County PublicLibrary, and asked if they had any positions available dealing with literacy. They replied that her query could not have been better timed because their literacy coordinator position had just became vacant. Caitlyn did a phone interview and was offered the job of Literacy Services Coordinator at the Cabarrus County Public Library. She moved to Concord, North Carolina in August 2017.
The main focus of Caitlyn’s job with the library is coordinating free tutoring services for adults who live in the county who are illiterate, low literate or don’t speak English as their first language. She oversees pre-assessments to find out how much they can read, write and understand and then matches them up with a volunteer. This means a large part of her job entails recruiting both students (through outreach events and identifying walk-ins at the library) and volunteers. The library makes posts on their facebook page, and Caitlyn does presentations at places of worship and other organizations with individuals looking for ways to help their community. “I tell them this is what we do, this is what we need,” Caitlyn says. “And to come help us.”
Each volunteer is paired with a student and required to meet a minimum of once each week for an hour, but many pairs meet more frequently. Tutoring is usually done at the library during library hours. People remain in the program for as long as they need. “We never kick anyone out,” Caitlyn says. Sometimes students stop getting tutored for good reasons, like the young woman who recently dropped out of the program because she got a job. And not just any job. She wanted to be an interpreter at a health clinic. She and her tutor met twice a week to work on advanced reading and comprehension and to put together a resume and cover letter, and she is now working at a countyhealth clinic.
Not all of the literacy students are struggling with English as their second language. Some of them are native speakers, born and educated in the United States. “They get pushed through high school and get a diploma,” Caitlyn says. “But they can’t read.” One man in his 60s came to the library with the goal of being able to read enough to pass a driver’s test. His sister helped him with homework assignments in high school and filling out job applications as an adult, and he memorized the first and last letters of street signs to be able to read them in order to get his driver’s license originally. But that system will no longer work so he has been working with a tutor for over a year, and Caitlyn recently procured a driver’s license manual for the pair so that they can better prepare.
Half of Caitlyn’s job takes place at the library, while the other half is done at the detention center down the street that currently houses about 350 inmates. The tutoring program is one of two literacy programs Caitlyn oversees, but the second – something she was initially nervous to take on – has become her favorite. Caitlyn oversees the detention center library, aided by fourvolunteers, and works hard to procure book donations. “We are always on the lookout for new books,” Caitlyn says. “They are only allowed to have paperbacks, so they fall apart easily.” She also oversees the eight reading groups run by volunteers for groups of twelve inmates. Volunteers take in different kinds of books and newspapers (written at a lower reading level) and then facilitate discussions on what the group has read. “Low literacy and incarceration rates are linked,” Caitlyn says. “So we remind the inmates that reading is a big advantage in life and a skill to be developed.” She also lets them know about the opportunity to continue their education once they are released, motivating them to take advantage of the free classes the local community college offers them to get their high school equivalency diplomas.
“This has been such an eye-opening experience for me,” Caitlyn says. “People don’t realize how limiting it is to not be able to read.” She can point to many examples, like the young woman who came to the library for help learning to read after getting fired from her job at McDonald’s because she couldn’t read the orders on the screen. That firing led to homelessness, and this is a cycle that Caitlyn sees repeat itself a lot. She considers literacy to be an essential building block to getting a job and keeping a job. “I want to make sure they get everything that they need so that they can keep moving forward,” Caitlyn says. “I am invested in helping as many people as I can.”
If you are interested in learning more, volunteering or donating books, you can reach Caitlyn Mitchell at 704/920-2223 or by emailing her at email@example.com.