Jeffry Buechler steps gingerly through the metal detectors at Boulder County Jail. The back of his pink shirt reads “Life is Good.” Today is his 37th birthday.
The stern corrections officer flips through Buechler’s book, Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp, for contraband. Satisfied with his lack of findings, the officer leads Buechler through a maze of muted beige hallways to a tiny room across from the jail’s mess hall. Another corrections officer meets him with an inmate in tow. A red bracelet on the inmate’s wrist reads, “Baca, Louie Christopher, Born 12/13/1977, 5-09, 140.”
There is a single fluorescent lamp hanging from the ceiling. Once Baca sits at the table, Buechler starts his lesson with an open-ended question.
“What do you want to start with today?” he asks.
Baca chooses a workbook from his well-worn stack and shuffles to a page near the middle. He begins, spelling out the words before he says them.
“F-a-m-i-l-y. From?” Baca guesses.
“What’s after the “a”?” Buechler asks.
Both Baca and Buechler are joyful about the triumph. It is one word in a long list that Baca will struggle with for the next hour, but with Buechler’s steady encouragement and aid, 33 year old Baca is learning to read.
ProLiteracy, the largest nonprofit adult literacy network in the country, defines literacy as “the ability to read, write, compute, and use technology at a level that enables an individual to reach his or her full potential as a parent, employee, and community member.” ProLiteracy found that more than 60% of all state and federal corrections inmates, like Baca, can barely read and write. Globally, the nonprofit reports that 774 million adults are illiterate in their native languages. ProLiteracy links illiteracy to gender abuse, extreme poverty, high infant mortality and preventable infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
According to the 2000 US Census, 43 million American adults do not have a high school diploma. In Colorado, 585,000 adults have not finished high school, and 7% of them did not complete 5th grade. These are the problems BoulderReads! director, Diana Sherry, is committed to alleviating.
Sherry’s office is nestled in a narrow second-story hallway of the expansive Boulder Public Library. The shelves behind her desk are adorned with rows of books and posters celebrating literacy and community, with slogans like, “Find Your Way Back to Books” and “Our Differences Make Us Stronger”.
Even with a master’s in education, Sherry said she never saw herself as the director of an adult literacy program.
“It was not my career goal,” Sherry said. “I constantly think I was extraordinarily lucky to just be there, at the right place, at the right time, for this job.”
Sherry has been with the BoulderReads! adult literacy program since its modest beginning in 1985, ABC and CBS sponsored a two year adult literacy awareness campaign. In response to this, the Boulder Public Library received an abundance of phone calls from local adults looking for help with literacy. No help existed at the time, so library employees applied for a grant from the Library Services and Construction Act to start an adult literacy program. Sherry, who became involved when she saw advertisements for the ABC/CBS campaign, was already training to be a volunteer for the Boulder program when it received the grant.
“At the time, I was at home with an 18-month-old,” Sherry said. “I was kind of looking for something to do that would involve interacting with adults.”
Sherry was chosen from a large pool of applicants to be the director of the new program.
“They didn’t expect it to grow a whole lot beyond the eight tutor/student pairs they already had meeting,” Sherry said. “It’s blossomed, and it’s because it’s a community that has a lot of dedicated people that are willing to donate their time.”
The program that used to be housed in the small living room of a house with no air conditioner and a slanted floor now occupies a corner of the Boulder Public Library. BoulderReads! offices include several meeting rooms, a computer lab, and outreach programs serving children and the county jail, all of which have been steadily accumulated over it’s quarter-century life span. The program’s two employees — Sherry and Eleanor Ryman, the volunteer coordinator — are city paid employees, but the rest of the program’s $113,000 budget is supported by grants and individual donations.
Sherry has been integral in the program’s growth, proposing and directing its expansion over the past 25 years. With a salary that makes her position what Sherry calls “a glorified volunteer job”, it seems more of her pay comes from emotional satisfaction.
“Just fifteen minutes ago, the guy in one of these two tutoring rooms came in and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you I got my citizenship and I have my ceremony next week. Thank you for your help in that.’ Who couldn’t feel good about getting paid to do something like that?”
The two men sitting on either side of the table provide a stark contrast to each other. Buechler’s blond hair is thick and long, complemented by wiry facial hair, while Baca is clean shaven with a buzz cut. Baca’s government issue, bright orange sneakers are firmly planted on the floor, while Beuchler’s sandal-clad feet are casually crossed at the ankles. Baca’s voice is marked by determination, Buechler’s, by patience.
“I try to be encouraging,” said Buechler. “I think that’s important, especially for people who have had a hard time learning in the past, that haven’t been encouraged so much. I try to use positive reinforcement.”
Buechler has been tutoring for BoulderReads! at the Boulder County Jail since his training in January of 2008. He began meeting with Baca shortly after his arrival at the jail on Nov. 12, a date Baca quickly recalls. He was in a BoulderReads! GED class before being matched up with Buechler.
“I was thinking in my old ways, you know, how can I get in trouble?,” Baca said. “How can I get kicked out? But now, I get kicked out in handcuffs. So now I just do my work.”
Baca’s “old ways” got him kicked out of school in tenth grade. He said his illiteracy wasn’t important to him until recently.
“I didn’t really trip on it because of what I was doing out there, you know?” he said. “I was just doing what I had to do. I didn’t really care about school.”
That apathy diminished when Baca was brought to the jail on a trespassing charge. Buechler began tutoring him once a week, but Baca asked for more regularity, so they now meet up to four times a week. Outside of tutoring, Baca studies flashcards and does exercises in the workbooks that are splayed across the table.
“I’ve been working out of them slowly but surely, making them last,” Baca said.
Baca’s arrival at the jail acted as a wake-up call.
“I’m 33 and the lifestyle I was living is not the way to go,” he said. “It’s time to settle down.”
Baca recounts his past with a short, factual attitude. He said his parents and childhood were “good”. This simple perspective carries over into his views of the BoulderReads! program.
“Ive learned a lot,” he said. “I want to continue if I get out of here.”
Baca awaits a sentencing trial on May 13th for a trespassing charge. Buechler, who wrote a letter to the judge citing Baca’s dedication to the literacy program, will be in attendance.
“It feels important to show up in person,” Buechler said. “When you say you’re going to stand up for someone and you can, it’s good to show up like that. I don’t think so many of the guys in jail get that sort of benefit.”
Despite the time Buechler has spent at the jail in the past several months, he said he still isn’t fully comfortable there.
“There’s always an awkwardness for me, being in a jail,” he said. “I’m getting a little more comfortable coming in and out, but it’s always nice to walk out.”
When one of Micaela Ortiz’s six children would pull the covers over their head in the morning and complain about going to school, she wouldn’t hesitate to put them in their place.
“I’d say, ‘If you are not going to school, we better go to Mexico. I don’t have to be here in the US without any family. Get ready to go back,’ she said. “Since they started school, they have to finish.”
Ortiz’s commitment to her children’s education was inspired by her lack thereof. Ortiz dropped out of school after fifth grade and was married to her husband of 44 years when she was 16. She upheld three jobs at a time, including one as a custodian at the University of Colorado Boulder, to pay for her children’s education after she moved to the US.
“It was a different culture here than in Mexico,” Ortiz said. “In Mexico, the mother didn’t go to work. She had to stay home and do the cleaning, everything. The father had to provide all the expenses and pay for everything and the kids just studied. When we came to the US, it was hard for all of us.”
Ortiz recalls one of these hard times when she was released from work early. Unsure of how to inform her ride that she needed to be picked up earlier, she had to take a taxi. But she didn’t know how to say her address in English, so she wrote it down and gave it to the driver.
“Imagine you don’t even know the address where you live,” she said. “It’s like being a little kid. This is why I said no, I have to learn English.”
Ortiz was paired with Sheila King at the BoulderReads program in the winter of 2005 because her goal was to improve her computer skills and King had a technical background. Over the past seven years, King has tutored Ortiz on reading skills, helped her obtain her citizenship and deal with medical matters, and she is now helping Ortiz study for the GED.
“It’s a journey to help her with her goals,” King said. “We look at how to do practical things.”
One of the practical things King and Ortiz dealt with was dental bills. Ortiz paid out of pocket for some expensive dental work, then received a statement saying her insurance company had also paid for the work. King helped Ortiz sort through the statements and prepare a script with which to contact the dental office and demand her refund.
“When you learn these things, you can defend yourself,” Ortiz said.
King and Ortiz have a deep friendship that is reflected in their interactions. They often go to restaurants together where Ortiz can practice ordering in English while they enjoy a meal together.
“Sheila has taught me a lot of things,” Ortiz said. “I don’t feel ashamed to ask her questions.”
Ortiz has inspired others, including her husband, to join the literacy program and expand their English skills. Ortiz’s husband was inspired to join an English program at Boulder High School when he saw Ortiz’s testimony at BoulderReads! annual Reading Progress Celebration.
“That day, when he saw me speaking in the microphone in English, he felt like, ‘If she’s doing that, why not me?’” Ortiz said. “And now, he’s going to learn English.”
This type of outreach is what Ortiz enjoys most and hopes to pursue when she finishes her GED. Because of her experiences, she said it is easy to explain to others the empowering nature of literacy.
“You can say, ‘You have the opportunity, like me, to have your GED, then you can have a better job,’” Ortiz said. “You can tell them something that is real.”
Unpublished; written for Reporting 3 class.