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Story by Mike Goodkind, Project Read volunteer.
In 2014, 'Atonio Tongia, a native of Tonga, was unemployed, homeless, navigating in a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio, and unable to read or write in any language. With the help of Project Read-Menlo Park, 'Atonio is finding the support and functional literacy skills that have already led him to finding an apartment and to his first corporate job in 62 years of life.
'Atonio began work at the East Palo Alto YMCA in October performing a range of duties, from maintenance to refereeing youth sports and greeting members in the lobby.
His Project Read tutor, Connie Watanabe, a former special education teacher and a retired research assistant at the Stanford Medical Center, says 'Atonio is "ecstatic." He keeps saying "that he now knows for sure that he is in America" – even after living 36 years in California and Hawaii.
"I cannot begin to tell you what a difference this job has already made in 'Atonio's life," she says. "It has increased his sense of self-worth, his self-dignity, tenfold. He's not yet even thinking much about what a regular paycheck will do for him monetarily."
Roberta Roth, literacy program manager for Project Read-Menlo Park, says tutors such as Connie are able to integrate life-skill learning into more traditional literacy tutoring. "We're fortunate to have people such as Connie who have the energy to improvise and go the extra mile to provide life-skills support," Ms. Roth says.
Connie runs a virtual bootcamp, up to two tutoring sessions per week. She uses a variety of techniques available from Project Read, such as flash cards and computer language programs, and exercises that include transcribing 'Atonio's autobiographical stories, so he can practice reading familiar material back to her.
At other times she helps 'Atonio with life skills, such as filling out job and housing applications. Sometimes she goes to the Y or the bank to help 'Atonio navigate online mysteries such as work scheduling, emailing or depositing a check.
"Experiences make me strong," he says.
Project Read is always looking for new tutors. While about 90 students are matched with one-on-one tutors, another 25 students are on a waiting list, Ms. Roth says.
Other programs offered by Project Read are beginning English classes held at Menlo Park's Belle Haven Library, a computer lab, and a Conversation Club for participants to practice English with native speakers.
Go to projectreadmenlopark.org for more information or contact Ms. Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 330-2525.