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Friday, 18 August 2017 00:00

Language of opportunity

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Lilly Barrett is the new coordinator of the Walworth County Literacy Council. Barrett helps match up students who need help learning English or improving basic skills with trained tutors through the council. Barrett had no choice but learn English when she moved to the U.S. from Croatia as a child. Lilly Barrett is the new coordinator of the Walworth County Literacy Council. Barrett helps match up students who need help learning English or improving basic skills with trained tutors through the council. Barrett had no choice but learn English when she moved to the U.S. from Croatia as a child. Terry Mayer/staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Born in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, Lilly Barrett came to the United States as a child, so she understands firsthand the difficulties of learning a language while simultaneously navigating life in a new country.

That experience adds a compassionate dimension to her new job as coordinator of the Walworth County Literacy Council, where she assesses the needs of students and matches them to tutors.

“So often people think if somebody doesn’t speak English they’re not intelligent, that they don’t have feelings, they’re not human or equal. There are many intelligent people out there, hardworking people, compassionate people, but they’re just not able to express themselves. That’s something I hope people can see if they get to know others,” says Barrett, a Williams Bay resident who has a background in social services and industrial relations.

Peruse this slice of life from Barrett.

Momentous decision

At that time (Croatia) was Yugoslavia, a Communist country. My father was a veterinarian, my mother was a teacher. Because of the Communist government, there wasn’t an opportunity for my father to succeed in his career, and we weren’t able to have any privileges, like a telephone or a better apartment. My father refused to become a Communist and that would have been the only way he would have been able to obtain those privileges. He had a distant relative that lived in Chicago, so he obtained a visitor’s visa and came here. He waited for two years for his green card. When he received that, we were able to join him. 

Making a living

My father took on all sorts of odd jobs. He was a janitor. He worked for a veterinary clinic, where he cleaned cages just to get in that business. By happenstance, he met somebody who took a liking to him and recommended him to the director at the Biologic Resources Laboratory, which was part of the University of Illinois in Chicago. My dad was able to work as a veterinarian at a very low pay, but of course, he took it -- even if it didn’t pay anything, he would have taken the job. It was a research laboratory, so my father’s role was to ensure that the animals were taken care of and that research was ethically done. He ended up retiring from there as the director of primates.

Separation and reunion

When he left I was 6, and we didn’t see each other until I was 8 years old. Without him, that was really hard. I remember I used a sweater of his that he left behind as a pillow. We lived in an apartment in Croatia and my mom could not get a job at the time, so my dad was sending money back. My grandmother, who’d had a stroke, lived with us. And I have a sister.

I’ll never forget coming to this country, when we were reunited at O’Hare Airport. That was the best day of my life. There is a photo of us -- my father is crying. His face is red. He looks gaunt from probably being exhausted and worried about us.

A new life

My parents wanted to acclimate us to this country. Six months after coming to the south side of Chicago, we moved to Glen Ellyn, the suburbs of Chicago. We were very thankful to get a lower-interest FHA loan from the government so we could buy a house. It took a long time to buy furniture. I remember having carpet in the house and lawn furniture in the living room. But we were achieving the American Dream -- we owned a home.

The first purchase that my dad made, which doesn’t seem very logical, was from a door-to-door salesman who was selling Encyclopedia Britannica. I think it was $500, which in those days we did not have that kind of money. But it really showed who my father was and the values that he had. It was really hard letting go of that Encyclopedia Britannica. I just did that a few years ago.

Learning the language

We took some English lessons for a few months in Croatia, but didn’t know it well. My father knew a lot of Latin because of his medical field, so he picked it up quicker. My mom was strong in languages so she picked it up quickly. She carried a dictionary with her everywhere. When she watched television or read the newspaper, she referred to her dictionary. That dictionary is just tattered. It’s like somebody’s Bible that’s been leafed through numerous times.

My mother said my sister and I became fluent in six months because we were fully immersed, but it was very, very hard. I remember the first day at school. Nobody spoke my language. I was so intimidated. The teacher asked me where I live. Later, I learned she was inquiring about whether I lived north or south and I had no idea what that meant.

A little history

Judy Stone founded the literacy council 14 years ago. Judy had a 72-year-old next-door neighbor who could not read or write. His wife was concerned that when she passed away, he wouldn’t be able to manage without her. So she wanted him to learn to read and write. That’s what inspired Judy to start teaching. Word spread and people told her, “You need to start a council.” I thought that was a beautiful story. She just began with a problem next door.

Judy said the council has served more than 500 students since it started.

The council

I match volunteers to students -- geographically, availability, what the needs of the students are and the availability and even interest of the tutors. I assess and evaluate the students, where they’re at in their language ability or literacy. I also train our volunteer tutors in how to tutor the students.

We meet only at libraries, and the Lakeshores Library System is phenomenal. Somebody from the council is probably using a library in the area at least once every day.

Currently, we have 59 volunteers and 64 students. Primarily we’re teaching English as a second language. We also do citizenship preparation. We’ve prepared 10 students to become citizens. The tutors in particular enjoy learning that their students passed the test because it’s quite a rigorous preparation.

We teach GED and then adult basic education, which is literacy. We refer with Gateway Technical College, so our students will take classes at Gateway and come to us at the same time. We can give the one-on-one and Gateway does the courses.

We have a jail literacy program where adult inmates are taught a basic education -- reading, writing, math. We have, I believe, eight students there.

A hidden problem

The percentage of people in Walworth County who are illiterate is 7.6 percent. In Wisconsin, the range of illiteracy is 4 percent to 10.9 percent, so we fall on the high side.

The problems of illiteracy can be as simple as not being able to read a menu in a restaurant or limiting yourself geographically because you’re not able to go further than your community, just walking and driving. But, of course, work is a big one. Even though you may be skilled, you’re not able to express that, so you’re not going to obtain a promotion. Taking care of your health care needs -- we see that at the clinic a lot -- people who aren’t able to describe their illness. A lot of it is fear, especially with illiteracy. There’s shame in acknowledging this, so people just hide it for years and years.

Lifelong connections

One of my students invited me to his wedding at his house. I asked him why he wanted me—I was actually a witness—and he said because I was his only friend. He knew no one else here.  I think the main thing we give people is hope that they see there is a way and it is possible.

Learning to communicate

About 60 percent of students are female, 40 percent male. Their ages are in their 30s and 40s. The females primarily need or want to learn English to be able to communicate with the schools, doctors, just everyday needs. The males typically want English for their work. 

Ethnicity wise, we currently have a student from India. We have a Vietnamese student, Eastern European. And then, of course, Americans that are learning literacy.

A culture of fear

The tutors have expressed to me that they’re worried about their students who are here, working hard, taking care of their families, have one, two, three jobs, doing everything they have to do. They’re worried that their students will pulled over, or might be harassed walking down the street.

Becoming a tutor

We have a lot of retired teachers who are tutors, but we don’t require a particular skill set, necessarily. What we really look for is somebody who is willing to understand the needs of the student. Tutors need to have the desire to meet those needs, to have compassion. We provide the training for them. We have a small resource library with materials, so we have resources for tutors to use. I wouldn’t want people to ever think they’re not qualified. We actually have a student who graduated from the ESL program who’s teaching English now to another student. You don’t have to be a native English speaker. English is not my native language.

Career path

I studied psychology and worked in the social services and then went back for a master’s degree in industrial relations, which is human resources and career development. From there I worked in wellness, promoting health and education programs to businesses.  And back in Illinois, I was a substitute teacher for a couple of years.

Living in Williams Bay

I was a summer resident for many years. My husband spent all of his summers in Fontana. His parents had a house at Sylvan Glen. Three years ago when our children started college, we moved up here from Chicago. I’ve been so impressed with all the community services, the people—how pleasant everybody is—the collaboration of wanting to help, and the culture.

Quick trips

My husband’s an airline pilot, so I get to travel, but often they’re crazy trips. He’s in Paris right now and it sounds much more glamorous than it is. Because he left last night, he’ll fly all night, and then he’ll arrive in the morning and sleep till about one in the afternoon. He’ll have about seven hours to sightsee, but since he’s been there many times, he may go for a run or go for dinner. Then he goes to sleep and he leaves the next morning. I’ve done crazy trips like that with him and it’s very tiring. But then I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, which is really neat.


I have twins that are 22 years old. My son is a flight instructor—he’s following the footsteps of my husband. My daughter is very much following my footsteps. She was working in career advising and she just got hired by the American Library Association.

Keeping Croatian traditions alive

At Christmastime I make a desert called oblatne. It’s thin wafer sheets—six of them—that  I make a filling for. The filling is chocolate and butter. My children and I would lay this out on the table and we would just spread it.

Good read.

I’m reading “Hot Dogs and Hamburgers: Unlocking Life’s Potential by Inspiring Literacy.” It’s a true story and was written recently by an attorney from Chicago whose son could not learn to read—he had a learning disability. So this man decided he would volunteer to teach at Literacy Chicago. He first went in selfishly to teach his son, but now he’s getting so much back, and I think that’s the important thing is how much you get back when you’re teaching somebody. You start hearing their stories, what wonderful people they are and the struggle they had.

The book was titled “Hot Dogs and Hamburgers” because one of his students was a professional man, so well dressed when he came in that he didn’t look like the typical student. The student said that he only ate hamburgers and hot dogs whenever he traveled because he could not read any of the other words on the menu. So that was his motivation. People are motivated by lots of things—typically not a menu.

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