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The snowbirds may leave town every spring, but the full-time residents of Borrego Springs stick around for the duration of the scorching-hot desert summers. Among them are about 50 residents who are learning English with the help of volunteers devoted to their education.

Are they farm workers, like in other remote parts of the county? Nope.

“A lot of them are gardeners and landscapers,” Elaine McVey, an English instructor and director of the Borrego Springs Literacy Center, said. “They’re cooks, waiters, dishwashers and supervisors who work at our hotels and restaurants.”

The program has been around for almost four years, and many of its tutors and students have worked together for most of that time.

“If someone needs and wants to learn English, we’re available. Once we start, no one wants to stop,” McVey said. “We’re becoming our own big family.”

Photo courtesy of Borrego Springs Literacy Center

It helps that the Borrego Springs Literacy Center can rely on a countywide community devoted to teaching English to adult non-English speakers. The Borrego Springs center is part of the Laubach Literacy Council of San Diego, which has been crucial to the success of all the volunteer efforts in Borrego Springs. Laubach Literacy helps with guidance and expertise in addition to assisting with background checks, insurance and matching funds for donations.

Photo courtesy of Borrego Springs Literacy Center

“We’re able to share information, ideas and materials,” McVey said. “It makes us more professional, and makes me feel like we’re not here by ourselves.”

Laubach Literacy, in turn, is one of 28 programs under the umbrella of the San Diego Council on Literacy.

While its efforts reach from shore to desert, the San Diego Council on Literacy’s efforts aren’t always well-publicized. Now, it’s boosting its efforts to make sure San Diego County residents know about its work. CEO Jose Cruz is working with the mayors of every one of the county’s 18 cities and getting endorsements for the literacy council’s efforts. Each city is expected to appoint a liaison to the literacy council to improve communication countywide.

“Our programs do a good job, but people have to know about them,” Cruz said. “We’re helping communities become aware of those people who are providing literacy services and learn about opportunities for leadership.”

One big message to local leaders:  It’s critical to promote literacy by tackling a variety of challenging issues like unemployment, incarceration, and homelessness.

“If you want literacy to improve,” Cruz said. “You have to deal with some of the other things that get in the way of the learning process.  Working with the mayors, there’s now an opportunity for SDCOL to bring literacy programs to the table of any particular city that’s looking at the diverse needs of individuals who need assistance.”

In the larger picture, political leaders will learn more about literacy services and be able to advocate for them on a statewide or county basis, Cruz said.

“They’ll be able to respond because they’ll understand the value that literacy provides to the community,” Cruz said.

As McVey in Borrego Springs has learned, the value of literacy and education don’t just flow to those who are being taught. Those who teach get benefits too. More than 20 tutors are volunteering to teach English in Borrego Springs, and they adore their labor of love

“It’s so much fun,” McVey said. “I enjoy getting to know my students, hearing their stories, watching their progress in English and their progress in life.”


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