Something For Everyone: For Adults

Ruben Dozal could barely read and write before age 50, but now

The walls of Ruben Dozal’s home speak volumes. Encased in 45
picture frames strategically scattered throughout the 55-year-old
Hollister resident’s home lie little pieces of Dozal’s life.
The walls of Ruben Dozal’s home speak volumes. Encased in 45 picture frames strategically scattered throughout the 55-year-old Hollister resident’s home lie little pieces of Dozal’s life.

The short stories matted within each frame’s glass interior are lovingly hung on hallway and bedroom walls, and every time Dozal passes one of his lovingly crafted stories, he’s reminded of a time when he could only dream of being able to point at something and say, “I wrote that.”

Because for the first 49 years of his life, Dozal couldn’t read or write. Just before his 50th birthday he made a decision to begin attending adult literacy classes through the Santa Clara County Vision Literacy program, and has been a constant visitor to the Gilroy office ever since.

“Fifty years of silence does something to a person,” he said. “I call it my second chance in life to read and write, and I think I’ll keep on doing it until I die. My story is not unique. Everybody has their own story, and this is mine.”

While Dozal made it through the 11th grade before dropping out of school and going to work, his mind stayed in the 6th grade, he said. No one, not even his wife or two daughters, knew he didn’t know how to read or write very well.

After spending years working in the fields, Dozal got a job doing maintenance at the Hollister-based chemical company General Chemical Corp. in the early 1990s. He worked his way up to foreman, even though he couldn’t read the names of the chemicals he was working with. Friends would read the chemical names for him, and he eventually learned the chemicals by site and smell, he said. Somehow he always managed to skate by without anyone realizing he couldn’t read, he said.

In 1998, something possessed him to write a short story, which he showed to one of his grandchildren’s day care teachers. The woman was amazed when he told her he had written the story, because the writing level was far below most adults his age, he said.

“She told me about an adult literacy program in Gilroy, and I said, ‘I’m too old for that. I’ll be 50 soon,” Dozal said. “I didn’t want to go at first.”

But the sudden urge to write down the memories he had collected over almost a half century overtook his embarrassment and fear, and later that year he finally made it to the Vision Literacy program in Gilroy.

Expelling any shame a person has stockpiled over a lifetime of being illiterate is paramount to the vision Literacy program’s mission, said director Pat Lawson-North.

The program, which is in its 20th year through the Santa Clara County Library, serves between 600 and 800 people a year, and has between 150 and 200 tutors volunteering their time, she said.

Every tutor is given a 12-and-a-half-hour-long introductory lesson before being paired with a learner. While most of the tutors work full-time jobs and not all of them have backgrounds in teaching, every one of them possesses the same desire to help reduce illiteracy, one mind at a time, Lawson-North said.

“People do it for needing a need in their own lives and really wanting to give back to the community,” she said.

Santa Clara County’s illiteracy rate has idled around 23 percent for the past few years, and one in four high school freshmen in Santa Clara County do not graduate.

“That’s the level of our workforce. So many people in their 20s think they can conquer the world, but they find they’re struggling when it starts to accelerate,” she said. “We grow up with these things, and we think everybody does, but it’s just not the case.”

When someone finally decides to take the plunge into the world of the reading, Lawson-North said it is usually one of three reasons propelling him or her: deciding to obtain a General Educational Development, or GED, vying for a promotion at work or wanting to read to their children.

The Vision Literacy program’s recent assessment of its population showed one-third of its clients have skills up to a second-grade reading level, one-third between a third- and sixth-grade reading level, and one-third between a sixth- to ninth-grade reading level.

Depending on reading level and learning style, clients attend weekly two-hour tutoring sessions, either one-on-one or in a small group setting, Lawson-North said.

A wide cross-section of the community utilizes the program’s free service. However, a large portion of the learners are Latinas and Asian women in their 30s and 40s, she said.

Many of the program’s clients are not completely illiterate, but simply fell through the cracks, said Judy Walko, director of the Gilroy office. Besides offering reading and writing tutors, the program also provides math, computer and English-as-a-second-language tutors, Walko said.

And while the learners attend the sessions to bolster their knowledge, often times the tutors learn just as much, if not more, in the process, she said.

“They’re enlightened to the need of literacy, which we always take for granted,” she said. “The learners often have way more to bring to the table than what the tutors think.”

The program asks for a six-month commitment when someone signs up, but many people don’t make it that long. Dozal’s commitment to improving his literacy outshines the average learner, and comes from an inner fire simply to know.

Over the past six years, Dozal has been through three tutors and has cranked out about 1,000 short stories and five books.

But his grasp of the language could always be better, so he continues to make the trip to Gilroy once a week, where his current tutor, Kris, edits and critiques his weekly writings.

“There’s no limit in the education of the mind. I’m the only one who can hold me back, and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “In my old age, I’ve been given the gift of writing about what I feel. And it is a wonderful feeling for me.”

San Benito County residents can also receive tutoring through the San Juan Bautista City Library’s adult literacy program. The program, which has provided services to hundreds of county residents since 2000, offers instruction in reading and writing and trains volunteers.

Literacy coordinator Alyson Creech declined to comment about the program.

Santa Benito County

San Juan Bautista City Library

801 Second Street

San Juan Bautista, CA 95045

Office Hours: 9am to 4:30pm

(831) 623-2061

San Benito County Free Library

470 Fifth Street

Hollister, CA 95023

Program Hours: Tuesday 1:30pm to 5pm

(831) 636-4107

e-mail: [email protected]

Where to go: local adult literacy programs

Santa Clara county

Vision Literacy

Community Learning Center (CLC)

42 Martin St.

Gilroy, CA 95020

(408) 848-5366

Community Learning Center

Santa Clara Valley Medical Center

Administration Building

751 S. Bascom Ave.

San Jose, CA 95128

(408) 793-6738

Vision Literacy

North County Office

540 Valley Way, Building 4

Milpitas, CA 95035

(408) 262-1349

e-mail: [email protected]

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