It was June, 2006. The place was the Adult Learning Center at the Aguilar branch of the NYPL on 110th Street near Lexington, where more than a hundred students and twenty-five volunteers met regularly to study together. Around a table, small groups of students met with one or two volunteers for four hours each week, and built their reading and writing skills together in a relaxed, informal setting.
Awa* was 41 years old. She had five children aged 4-13, and she was born in Gambia, in West Africa. She walked into the Aguilar Adult Learning Center and said to the Site Advisor, “Can you help me? I want to learn to read.”
Awa’s spoken English was poor, but her desire to learn was clear. She had had only a few months of education in Gambia before coming to the US to start a new life here. Catholic Charities had helped her with housing, food, and schools for her kids, and then sent her to the library so she could learn how to read. They knew that her low literacy put a ceiling on her prospects to survive in NYC.