Since 2009, the Zonta Club of Sanibel-Captiva has had an active service project that supports the drive to improve literacy in Southwest Florida. Recently, the club enjoyed a lively presentation by Susan Acuna, president and CEO of the Literacy Council Gulf Coast, who explained the many ways her organization impacts those struggling to learn our language.
"I am passionate about this topic," Acuna said. "It's clear that literacy benefits everyone. In our current economy, mastery of English means that adults can improve their job performance and job status, make more informed purchases, and participate in their children's education. Ultimately, they become voters and participants in the political process. Best of all, adults from different groups in our community get acquainted, find support and become friends."
In 2010-2011, she said, 12 students became U.S. citizens.
Zonta Literacy team, in front from left, Ellen Strobel, Orlene Shimberg, Wendy West, Literacy Council CEO Susan Acuna, Carolyn Gray and Ginger Parker; in back from left, Sue Denham and Carol Gestwicki
Zonta's service team has 10-plus members, most of whom have undergone training offered by the Literacy Council. Some travel to east Fort Myers weekly through the school year to instruct parents with children enrolled in the Lee County Head Start program. Others support a fledgling "Moms and Tots" program at Harlem Heights in south Fort Myers, providing instruction in English to local mothers while a social worker trainee looks after their children. One study has shown that 100 percent of Moms & Tots graduates begin school measured as average or above average as compared to their classmates.
The Literacy Council Gulf Coast was formed in 2011 through a merger of the Literacy Council Bonita Springs, which dates back to 1989, and Literacy Volunteers of Lee County. The new organization, which receives about one-third of its funding from United Way, has an army of volunteers providing services that are valued in excess of $1 million annually.
"Due to our wonderful volunteers, we are able to keep the cost per student under $200 per year," Acuna said.
Participation grows each year, from 141 students and 133 tutors in 2000 to nearly 3,000 students and 778 tutors at the end of December 2011.
Classes are offered at various locations, including elementary schools, community centers, libraries and the Cape Coral United Way house. This year, Zonta grants totaling $10,000 were awarded to literacy projects in Southwest Florida.
At the end of the presentation, Acuna received a large bag of new books donated through Zonta's "Give the Gift of Reading" book drive over the holidays. Islanders shopping at local book stores purchased new books from an approved list of all-time favorites. The books will be given to mothers in Moms & Tots who agree to read to their children at home.
The Zonta Club of Sanibel/Captiva is a service organization of professional women working together to provide hands-on assistance, advocacy and funds to strengthen women's lives on the islands, in Lee County and around the world through Zonta International. For information www.zontasancap.com.