Pamela Cornelison, ’96 Journalism, likes teaching—just not in the classroom. (A stint as a junior high teaching assistant taught her that.) Tutoring is her forte, adult literacy her cause. Cornelison directs the Merced County Library’s Read And Succeed program, a program she founded in 2009. Supported by grants from the California State Library and the Merced County Human Services Agency, Read And Succeed has trained approximately 175 volunteer tutors and made it possible for more than 300 learners in Merced County to improve their reading and writing skills in order to obtain GED certificates, achieve American citizenship or fulfill other personal goals. “Our tutors and learners are all ages, all cultures, all races. We look like the United Nations here,” Cornelison says. (The youngest tutor is 19; the oldest, 80.) In a county where 35 percent of adults are school dropouts, in a job market where even an entry-level position requires at least a high school equivalency certificate, the Read And Succeed program provides a critically important service. “To get ahead,” Cornelison says, “people need help.”
Cornelison’s first tutoring “project”? Her brother.
Younger brothers can give sisters headaches—or they can serve as the springboard to careers, as in the case of Pamela Cornelison, ’96 Journalism.
“My brother started school at five and had a lot of trouble communicating and reading,” Cornelison says. “When he failed first grade, I thought: that’s it. We’re going to sit down and do this together.” Brother and sister maxed out their library-lending limit on dinosaur books and set to work, “sounding words out,” she recalls.
A good tutor, Pamela Cornelison.
Her brother grew up to become a professor of literature.
Still wondering what she “wanted to do when (she) grew up,” Cornelison interned at Sunset Magazine. “I was the oldest intern they’d ever hired,” she says, laughing. For 12 years she worked at the magazine and at Sunset Books as a contract writer, editor and managing editor. But working online, at home, she missed being around people. Always a library lover, she took an “extra help” job at the Mariposa County Library and when her boss there transferred to Merced County Library, Cornelison followed—which is where her interest in adult literacy blossomed into the Read And Succeed program.
Supported by grants from the California State Library and the Merced County Human Services Agency, all Read And Succeed curricula and materials are free to learners and volunteer tutors. Tutors must be high school graduates or have their GEDs, read at a twelfth-grade level and speak English. Learners must be 18 and simply possess “the ambition to learn.”
Along with directing the program, writing grants and organizing volunteers, Cornelison also tutors. The first gentleman she ever tutored continues to study with her. A ninth-grade dropout, he confessed to Cornelison that he already knew he “wasn’t going to make it” by fourth grade, she says.
According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, almost half of U.S. adults are poor readers or functionally illiterate, unable to balance a checkbook, read drug labels or write an essay for a job application. Of Merced’s cities, Los Banos has the lowest literacy rates.
A report released by the American Human Development Project, ranking regions of California on a composite of health, education and standard of living markers, identified “five Californias.” Faring worst were “The Forsaken Five Percent.”
“Along with the Imperial Valley and Watts, we here in Merced County are in level four—‘Struggling California,’” Cornelison says. “We have a lot of health, incarceration and poverty issues. But with education comes longevity and many other benefits. Basically, that’s why the Read And Succeed program exists: to interrupt the cycle of generational low literacy, poverty, incarceration and poor health in Merced County.”