Unsung Heroes: Dedicated to literacy for all

In the 15 years that Liz Curren has been a volunteer for The Literacy Council of San Luis Obispo County — first as a tutor and later as a center director — she’s seen dozens of adult students progress from speaking little English to gaining the language skills and confidence to start their own businesses; volunteer in their children’s classrooms; earn U.S. citizenship; serve as interpreter for co-workers and friends ... the list goes on.

Curren has joined in celebrating those successes.

“It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve gone to weddings and baptisms and birthdays,” she said. “It’s almost like a big family there.”

Curren began tutoring at the Los Osos center because it was close to home — twice-a-week tutoring sessions are held at the Methodist Church, just down the street from her house — and because she’s always been interested in learning about different cultures.

After a couple of years, she took over paperwork and other administrative duties, in addition to tutoring.

“She wouldn’t keep a waiting list at her center, which means she would try to accommodate right away anyone coming to her center who wanted to learn how to read, write and speak English,” said Bernadette Bernardi, executive director of The Literacy Council.

Due to other commitments, Curren is in the process of turning the duties of Literacy Center director over to another volunteer, though she continues to help there.

Through her involvements in the community, she continues to stay in touch with many of the students who have been through the center.

Isaac Villalobos is one of them.

“When I came to this country five years ago, I didn’t speak a word of English,” he said. “After a year, I met Liz. She said, ‘If you enroll in this class, we can help you.’ ”

Today, Villalobos speaks English fluently and often interprets for his Spanish-speaking co-workers. He’s been named an employee of the month at his job and worked his way up to being assistant manager of a large housekeeping staff at the convalescent care center where he works. He also is studying for U.S. citizenship.

That’s just one story.

Another of the Los Osos center’s students met and married a fellow student and together, they started a landscaping business. Today, the couple has three children who are frequent visitors to the Los Osos Library, where Curren works part time.

Helping parents pass on a love of reading to their children is exactly what the Literacy Council hopes to foster.

“A big part of the program is to encourage young mothers to read to their children,” said Curren.

She and other tutors who volunteer at 14 literacy centers throughout the county are committed to continuing that good work, even though budget cuts have been making it difficult to carry on as usual. It could get worse; midyear cuts the state is poised to make could do further damage to libraries and literacy councils.

Curren notes that literacy centers like the one in Los Osos don’t need much operating revenue, though the budget does cover training materials for tutors and some children’s books that adult learners take home to share with their children.

“A lot can be done with no money,” said Curren, “but we still appreciate having the books.”

Even as the economy makes the future of so many nonprofit organizations uncertain, Liz Curren carries on with grace and goodwill. She reminds us that, through teaching, one person has the power to change many lives for the better. The Tribune is proud to honor Liz Curren as an unsung hero.