The struggle for literacy requires not only an interest in people and a passion for language, but a healthy dose of ingenuity. Katrina Wert specializes in all three.
In her work with the Skyline Literacy Coalition in Dayton, Va., (pop. 921) one of Wert’s most successful tools has been a cookbook. The World at Our Table was designed to help adult students and their tutors discuss food measurements and cultural customs, but it taught them—and Wert—a good deal more.
A 28-year-old Florida native, Wert moved to Virginia in 1997 and volunteered to work at the 24-year-old organization providing students in Rockingham County with tutors in general literacy or English as a second language. Her diverse background gave her a particular interest in Skyline.
“I felt an immense amount of respect for people, particularly adults, who were working to overcome so many life issues—to become fluent in another language, to provide for their family, to expand their own horizons,” she explains.
She was assigned to tutor Felipe and Cristina Lopez, a Mexican couple who have since become her close friends. They, like so many others who either never learned to read—or came to America with no English language skills—are virtually helpless when it comes to the daily routines we take for granted. They might be unable to read ingredients on a package or prescription drug, for example, or use the telephone, write a resume, fill out a job application, or take a driver’s test, and so on.
Soon after she began at the literacy center, she was asked to train other tutors until she quickly became a fixture at Skyline.
The idea for the cookbook surfaced early last year when Wert, Skyline executive director Jay Morgan-Bungard, and other tutors brainstormed about increasing cross-cultural communication with international learners. One tutor, recalls Wert, noted that food was a terrific topic to share with students. A common ground, as it were, that cut across language and culture barriers. Morgan-Bungard suggested the coalition sponsor a cookbook.
“I told her right away, ‘That’s a great idea! I want to help make that happen!’” Wert recalls.
She designed a lesson plan that helped learners and tutors discuss recipes, kitchen measurements and equipment, and food traditions in various countries. The result drew on the culinary skills of students and tutors, along with contributions from area restaurants, with more than 70 recipes ranging from Thai cooking to peanut butter chocolate chip cookies.
The $5 cookbook was a financial success, with enough proceeds to pay for a second edition soon. Some of the learners say, “I’ve shown this to everyone I know!”
She and others also have learned more than recipes and language from the book.
“For example, many of the Eastern European recipes featured huge quantities of eggs and butter. Or [the dishes] were just so large,” she explains. “I happened to call one of the students, and asked, ‘Is this accurate? Do you use this much in all of your cooking?’ She said, ‘Yes, when we prepare a meal we prepare enough that everyone around us and anyone that might stop in can come and enjoy.’ There were really interesting things that we discovered about other cultures that we didn’t know, just based on something as simple as a recipe.”
Guadaloupe Morales, 36, of Bridgewater, Va., who recently won Skyline’s outstanding learner award, is one of many who praise the long hours, energy, talent, and tireless dedication that Wert applies to the people who come in looking for a chance for a new life with a new language.
“She’s given us everything,” Morales states, in clear English.
As to her own view of her contributions to literacy in Rockingham County, however, Wert demurs.
“The learners are the heroes,” she says.