Last month this column featured two Somali women who arrived in Boise with no money, no English and no business experience yet soon mastered the language, got their GEDs, created day care enterprises and bought homes. Readers loved the story, but I realized later I hadn’t explained: How, exactly, had they pulled it off?
About this time a friend invited me to a luncheon. Richard Russo, the great novelist, would be speaking. What was a Pulitzer Prize winner doing in Boise midweek, midwinter, when he lives in Maine?
When we showed up at Boise Centre for the lunch, there were 1,000 people who had come to cheer for an organization I’d barely heard of: the Learning Lab, based in Garden City. Russo was the speaker at the Lab’s annual Lunch for Literacy.
The Boise Junior League initiated literacy education 30 years ago, then turned it over to the Learning Lab, which became the go-to educator of immigrants, refugees and the 11 percent of Idahoans who are functionally illiterate.
I soon discovered why the Lab is so successful: one-on-one tutoring. This year, 262 volunteers will tutor slightly fewer than 500 newcomers for more than 13,000 hours in two-and-a-half hour sessions.
Teresa Sabala has been tutoring every Monday night since 1992. I told her I’d never heard of such dedication. “Oh, I always feel better afterwards,” she said. Her student that night was an Afghani with little education, no legs, in a wheelchair. “He’s so lively and intelligent and has made such marvelous progress,” she said.
Alejandra Whynman is a young mother who came to the Lab reading at a fifth-grade level, jumped four grades the first year, passed her GED her third year and is now on her way to becoming a nurse. “Alejandra represents the tenacity and resilience of our students,” her tutors said when awarding her a scholarship at the luncheon.
Adults, children and families can learn together. Last year, 16 earned their GEDs. And that’s when my first puzzle was solved: the women this column featured last month, Zainab Dalib and Faiza Muse, had mastered English and the GED at the Learning Lab. They are much beloved.
Anyone in human development with a lick of sense knows to “walk beside” victims of blameless misfortune, like the legless Afghani, and not to reach down to “help the poor and oppressed.” The Learning Lab seems to foster a sense of equality, a democratic spirit based on respect and dignity — something lacking in our society just now.
The Lab is one part of a web of nonprofits and agencies that advocate for newcomers in education, housing, business and community integration. They are the deep, diverse reasons Boise has become such a haven for those fleeing drought and mayhem.
Another reason is generosity. Luncheon guests donated $79,000 that day. Regular donors number well over a thousand, including 17 corporations and foundations. Russo was so impressed that he sent a photo of the audience back to his wife.
So how did he get here? Tony Doerr, Boise’s Pulitzer Prize winner and a member of the Lab’s advisory board, had emailed him an invitation and explained the Lab’s work. Russo said yes immediately. He was hilarious. He did it for free. The Lab’s mission can do that to a guy.
Jerry Brady is a former newspaper publisher and a member of Compassionate Boise. firstname.lastname@example.org