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After Andy P. graduated from Patchogue-Medford High School in Medford, N.Y., he landed a job crafting wooden staircases, and, soon after, he married his high school sweetheart. Life in the Long Island suburbs for the South Shore couple was pretty good with steady work and a starter home. But when Andy P.’s wife began attending SUNY at Stony Brook as an art student, he had to face facts. He couldn’t read, his wife didn’t know about it, and he was panicked that his marriage would fail. It was time to seek help. Ray V.’s story is similar. Currently in his early 50s, Ray, from the Mastic, N.Y., area, hid his inability to read from his wife of 25 years and children, and when he was laid off from his job, the fear of not knowing how to read an employment application prompted him to find a way out. Both these men have another thing in common besides illiteracy; they were each tutored by attorney Terry J. Karl. Karl has been a literacy tutor since 1988 and has been the president of the board of directors for the Literacy Volunteers of America in Suffolk County since 1996. He explained that five years after founding his law firm of Russo, Fox & Karl in Hauppauge, N.Y., he began looking for something outside of law to satisfy his craving to help others. “I saw a commercial with Barbara Bush talking about illiteracy, and I couldn’t believe that this was a problem,” he said. “I took the training course in 1988 and in 1989 I started tutoring Andy. In 1991, they asked me to be a board member, and in 1996, they asked me to be president. It snowballed for me and took on a life of its own.” Karl said working with Andy P., his first “learner,” as the organization calls them, sparked his desire to try to heighten awareness of this social problem. “I was really angry when I heard his story.” “He was born here, pushed through the school system and graduated, even though he couldn’t read,” he recounted. “He could barely write his name. And like anger often does, (it made me want) to do something about it.” NATIONAL PROBLEM According to the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey, more than 40 million Americans over age 16 have “significant literacy needs.” Literacy is defined as being able to read, write and comprehend at at least a sixth-grade level. According to the LVA, one in seven adults in Suffolk County, or 14 percent, is illiterate. In the past year, the LVA has trained 1,432 tutors in Suffolk County and helped 2,113 people. The waiting list for tutors totals about 800. The LVA Suffolk County, the local chapter of the national organization, has served the most learners among the 50 branches in New York State. Those applying for help are nearly an equal proportion of American-born citizens, raised in English-speaking homes, and immigrants from countries who speak Spanish, Chinese, Polish or Russian, said Executive Director Maxine Jurow. Sixty-five percent are female; they often decide to learn how to read and write to help their children with their homework. “It’s important to keep in mind that these are real people with real lives,” said Pamela J. Greene, an attorney and vice president of the board of directors. “They have jobs, husbands, children. They are learning how to read after fulfilling all of their obligations. And they are tired when they show up to be tutored, but they really want to be there.” Green, also an Islip Town councilwoman with a private practice in Central Islip, N.Y., said she became involved with the organization, and the problem, in the late 1980s. She tutored two students successively before beginning law school at Touro Law Center. READY TO READ Tutors receive 24 hours worth of training and then are “matched” with either one student or small groups, depending on demand. Lessons are generally once a week for two hours at local libraries. To be accepted into the program, learners must complete an application and be assessed to determine their learning levels. LVA assessors administer tests every six months to gauge the learners’ progress. Greene and Karl said students are taught how to read and write by tailoring lessons to their interests. For example, Greene said that since her learner worked in a cafeteria, she helped her to read by looking at menus. Karl said that because Andy P. was interested in current events, they read the children’s section of Newsday and any simply written stories from other newspapers, in addition to comic books. Ray was interested in obtaining his commercial driver’s license, so they read passages from the driving manual and license application. LAWYER RECRUITS One way the organization helps to eradicate literacy is to solicit recruits, like attorney Jonathan Sinnreich, a partner at Sinnreich, Wasserman & Grubin of Hauppauge. Sinnreich said he tutored a physicist from China who was working and living at the Brookhaven Lab compound. Eventually, his wife, who taught literature at a university in China, was also tutored by Sinnreich. Since the couple was unfamiliar with American culture, Sinnreich said he instructed them in English through typical American activities. He took them to restaurants and they read the menu. They wanted to know what Christmas was when they spotted Santa Claus figures and decorated stores, so Sinnreich read them “The Night Before Christmas.” The physicist wanted to learn about sports, so Sinnreich taught them about baseball. “They are both highly educated people, but they were sitting in their dorm room because they were afraid to go out, since they couldn’t speak or understand the language,” Sinnreich said. LEGAL LITERACY To help increase awareness of the illiteracy problem in general as well as in the legal system, the LVA held a roundtable summit on Oct. 18 at Touro Law Center. The organization invited court officers, attorneys and bar representatives to brainstorm for ideas to make the legal system user-friendly for those who cannot read. “You can have a person standing before a judge and no one realizes that the person can’t read,” Karl said. “Maybe all he knows is that he got some papers in the mail, and he’s not sure why he’s there until the judge tells him.” Karl said the LVA is trying to add literacy awareness components to judges’ training, continuing legal education programs and law school courses. “The Ethics CLE would be a great place to discuss this,” he said. “How can you ethically advise your client if you don’t know that he doesn’t understand what you are telling him?”

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