[Noozhawk note: One in a series of articles highlighting Santa Barbara’s Man and Woman of the Year awards. This year’s nomination period is now open.]

Imagine being unable to read your child’s report card, fill out a job application, read a bus schedule, or vote. For most of us, it is almost impossible to picture what it would be like to go through life unable to read or even to tell time. It is a sad fact that many in our community, working and raising families, carefully keep the secret that they cannot read. It could be anyone — perhaps someone you know.

Fortunately, volunteers like Linda Solin are there to help. A Santa Barbara Public Library Adult Literacy Program volunteer tutor, she devotes several hours every week helping adults learn to read.

Solin is used to challenges: She began her volunteer career in her teens in the surgical ward of a children’s hospital, helping to change burned children’s bandages. She enjoyed her hospital work but always dreamed of being a teacher.

After attending UC Santa Barbara, she worked in bilingual education in Bakersfield, later moving back to Santa Barbara, where she taught kindergarten and first grade for the next 30 years. Retirement opened new possibilities. A friend recommended the tutoring program and, before she knew it, she was matched with “José” (not his real name).

A confident and successful worker in the field of construction, José, 38, told Solin that he had driven by the library many times before summoning the courage to ask for help. His schooling in Mexico was interrupted at a young age by moving to the United States, where he picked crops with his father in the Central Valley. He never learned to read. At first nervous, José is now totally committed to learning to read and write so that he can improve his English.

For the past three years, Solin has worked with José twice a week, tucked away in a private part of the library. (She was astounded to find that he could read long words such as “responsibility” and “symmetrical” but had no use for small words such as “it” and “the.” He was amazed to find out that he used phrases that he did not realize consisted of several distinct words (“all of a sudden” or “get out of here”).

Solin began by writing down José’s life story and reading it back to him. She takes notes on where he has difficulties and thinks of creative ways to help him. Once, she provided him with personal flashcards based on his life and work. She says she will miss him when he eventually moves on.

Solin’s second learner is a woman in her 70s who raised a family, worked in the fields and now lives alone. Tired of watching TV, “Ruth” (not her real name) decided she wanted to learn math. She reads at a third-grade level but never learned to tell time. Ruth has no awareness of the passing of those small increments of time that rule most of our lives. This results in her sometimes boarding her bus an hour early. Solin has now added a kitchen clock to her tool kit.

Solin explains that being illiterate limits job opportunities and that it takes great courage for an adult to reveal their secret and seek help. Tearing up as she describes the difficulties encountered by her learners, she says she works hard at figuring out new ways to open doors to the magic of words and through them, a better future.

She is changing lives forever — and enriching hers in the process.

The Santa Barbara Public Library has 150 volunteer tutors who serve approximately 230 adult learners per year. Volunteers donated 8,200 hours over the past year, providing instruction and preparing lessons.

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Volunteers enrich all our lives.

Do you know a volunteer who has made a significant impact on the Santa Barbara community? You can nominate that person to be the next man or woman of the year! Just fill out a simple nomination form online by clicking here. Nominations are open until Aug. 26. The awards are sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation and Noozhawk.

Suzanne Farwell represents the Santa Barbara Foundation.