Santa Paula Times

FLAIR: Blanchard Library program celebrates 25 years of literacy

November 12, 2010
Santa Paula News

Twenty-five years of literacy was celebrated at the recent FLAIR anniversary event held at Blanchard Community Library.

And the silver lining in the cloud of illiteracy is programs such as FLAIR, the acronym for Family Literacy Aid In Reading, which, through volunteer efforts, has helped thousands of people better their lives.

Former longtime FLAIR Executive Director Elaine Hunt was a special guest at the celebration where Blanchard Community Library Librarian Dan Robles presented her history of the program. A featured speaker was Councilman Dr. Gabino Aguirre, who told the crowd of the importance of FLAIR and its impacts on the community.

Although still a stalwart supporter of the program, Hunt said she was “sad” that her former longtime co-worker and friend Barbara Rios passed away late last year. “Barbara was very important in keeping the program running” over the 20-year period. Hunt said Rios was not only the FLAIR office manager, but also “a very strong supporter... Barbara really believed in the program.”

Hunt’s history of the program noted that in 1984 began a “new and in some cases controversial plan to bring a program in California libraries that would teach reading to adults” who spoke English, but were unable to read or write in the language. Then California State Librarian Gary E. Strong “recognized the need for a new kind of library service that would serve” the major ethnic and racial populations, as well as recent immigrants.

Although some believed learning to read should be left to teachers, when Strong issues an invitation to state libraries to participate in the program the response was “immediate and enthusiastic.” That included Robles, who “immediately saw the need” for what was called the California Literacy Campaign, which offered state start up funds that each year would be reduced as libraries assumed more financial responsibility for the program.

The library was granted the funds on January 1, 1985. Project coordinator was Virginia Aguirre, assisted by Margaret Cary, and Hunt wrote, “Santa Paula citizens, businesses and service organizations were anxious to get involved in this new service that was so needed,” and tutors and students were recruited.

“Most areas of society recognized that illiteracy was too costly to business and even impacted basic living skills,” and program support grew. Students had a plan of study that gave them basic reading and writing skills, and graduates often “went on to enroll in higher learning classes and became eligible for better jobs.”

Aguirre left FLAIR in 1987 and was replaced by Jeanne San Carlo, whose “special talent” was networking with businesses and organizations who either benefit from FLAIR services and/or could support the program. San Carlo established classes at Calavo for employees.

Rios joined FLAIR in 1988. Noted Hunt, “Barbara was much loved by students, tutors and library employees, and she remained with FLAIR” until her death.

FLAIR was so successful that a new program, Families for Literacy, was created, designed for adult learners and their families. “It encouraged children and parents to read together, to come to interactive library events and story times to instill a love of reading and books,” many given to them for free. Jeri Mead became the first FFL coordinator in 1990.

When San Carlo retired in 1989, Hunt - a newly retired Los Angeles Unified School District administrator - took over FLAIR. It was a bad time for FLAIR, with state funding ending and the library experiencing its own financial shortfalls and resulting cuts. “FLAIR had to become self-supporting or cease to provide services to the needy non-readers in Santa Paula.”

FLAIR had 86 students, and Hunt, donating her time to the program, spoke at every gathering or meeting of organizations that might help, while FLAIR employees took minimal pay. The community rallied - including the Santa Paula Times, which created the annual Executive Spelling Bee - as did corporate sponsors, but even with grants it was doubtful the program would survive.

“It was devastating to think that all the caring and hard work of many people would be lost and students would not have access to learning.” Then-Councilman Carl Barringer “brought a friend,” Congressman Robert J. Lagomarsino. Barringer so impressed the success and importance of FLAIR to the congressman that he suggested Hunt apply for U.S. Department of Education funding.

Grant writing is a lengthy process, and “thirty typewritten pages later, outlining the history, effects, needs and outcomes of the program, along with the sincere letters of recommendations” from Lagomarsino and community leaders, the $35,000 grant was awarded. Not only did the funds continue the program, it gave Hunt a head start on lining up more grant support and expanding the program with new services.

Kathryn Bornhauser became the FFL coordinator, and a new person was found in an unusual way: Xavier “Big X” Montes was asked to watch the parking lot after a rash of parking lot car break-ins, causing damage not only to vehicles, but also to the morale of students.

People who could not speak English - now included in FLAIR programs - were reluctant to visit the library, unsure of their welcome. Montes became the program’s unofficial salesman, encouraging people to join the program and bring their families. ESL was added to the services, and the program’s growing needs were fulfilled by grants that also benefited the library with computers and the homework center.

A parenting class that stressed the importance of parents as teachers was begun, and The Angels Program sent volunteers into the schools to work with at risk children. FLAIR even tutored a deaf student, “one of our greatest challenges,” who was not only unable to read or write, but did not possess sign language skills.

Joe Rafferty, a deaf FLAIR student, started to work with the man. Hunt taught him to read a few simple words, and a grant paid for a sign language teacher. “All of this work and caring allowed him to take and pass his citizenship exam successfully. Even the people at the INS were cheering for him... it was a great day.”

Hunt wrote the “miracle year” came in 1993 when voters approved a parcel tax to help fund the library, an effort other communities had not attained.

FLAIR is “really a story of people,” including the graduating student who wrote a tribute dedicated to his teacher: “To volunteer as a tutor for someone you don’t know, someone who is in the darkness with no light in front of them, is not easy. You teach us with your heart.”

Hunt said being a FLAIR tutor “is a labor of love,” and one 20-year veteran tutor, 90-year-old Dick Halpin, continues to tutor twice a week, “still bringing light to his students.” Hunt retired in 2002, and now Bornhauser is coordinator. “FLAIR goes on,” wrote Hunt, “as a labor of love.”