Literacy Services shares the ‘Love’ at virtual luncheon

Cindy Mercado, Jessica Schmitt, Lt. Joe Abollo and Elida Gomez

When the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of their March 24 Love of Literacy Luncheon, Literacy Services of Indian River County joined the virtual reality sphere. Co-chairs Barbara and Dick Detwiler invited supporters via email to enjoy a virtual version of the luncheon.

The John’s Island residents are tutors at Literacy Services, which provides quality literacy tutoring to adults. They said that seeing the mission in action has been especially impactful to them, writing that “most of the clients have families and tough, demanding jobs, and still they come to Literacy Services because they want so much to improve their situation and get ahead.”

Their email included several videos, the first of which they had planned to show at the luncheon, featuring a current student, an alumna and a tutor. Three other videos highlighted this year’s Students of the Year, who would have spoken at the event.

In a separate email, executive director Jessica Schmitt videotaped herself drawing the names of ticketholders and donors entered into a raffle to win door prizes donated by local businesses. The prizes and a selection of books that were given to sponsors and table captains were safely delivered following CDC guidelines.

In spite of stay-at-home recommendations, Schmitt said, “our students are still learning. We have some that are meeting up on Zoom and our conversation club is still meeting virtually, so there are still opportunities to learn, even in these uncertain times. It will certainly help them as they navigate homeschooling their children and talking with healthcare providers.”

In the first video, Fellsmere resident Maria Alvarez, who emigrated from Mexico, said she had enrolled in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program to be able to better communicate, especially with doctors and her children’s teachers.

“I started learning with ABCs and colors, but now I read a lot of books; I read all the time,” said Alvarez, adding that her tutors have opened new doors that have improved her life and that of her children.

“I remember one of the things I was very happy with was when I read my first book in English; that was very amazing for me,” said Literacy Services alumna Maria Gutierrez, who emigrated from Venezuela. “Then, they helped me when I became a citizen,” said Gutierrez. She obtained a bachelor’s in 2014 and a master’s in social work at UCF in 2019 and is now an adoption specialist at Children’s Home Society.

“I know that literacy is the most significant thing that determines a person’s success in life,” said Deborah Becton, who tutored Literacy Student of the Year Russell McKinnon. She stressed that tutors do not need to have a teaching background; Literacy Services provides tutor training and teaching materials.

Becton sees progress each time she meets with her student. “And it’s very, very rewarding both for him and for me,” Becton said. “I have so much respect for my student for the work that he does, and for even putting himself out there to say, ‘I want to learn; I need to learn.’”

Because McKinnon hopes to earn a Commercial Driver’s License to drive a semi, Becton taught him map reading, and to prepare him for the test has customized his learning plan to focus on words from the CDL handbook.

“I have more confidence in myself,” said McKinnon in thanks. He shared that he had dropped out of high school to assist on the family farm and never regained his education because “life got in the way.” Now, his reading, writing and math skills have improved and he has learned to use a computer. “So I am glad to be learning. I thank all the people that are supporting the Literacy Services. You are helping to make my dream come true.”

ESL Student of the Year Magda Gutierrez emigrated from Mexico in 2012 and has been tutored by Kay Ballinger. Improved English skills helped her obtain a better job and she had hoped to take a U.S. citizenship test March 19 until it, too, was canceled. Gutierrez epitomizes the vision of Literacy Services to end generational illiteracy; her children have all attended college.

“I would like to thank my tutor, now my friend, for the many hours she has volunteered to study with me,” said Gutierrez. “Now I have confidence when speaking and writing English. This program really told me how to challenge myself and not to give up until I reach my goals.”

Despite only living in the U.S. two years, ESL Student of the Year Veruzka Vera has made remarkable progress with her English skills, and is now a manager at United Juice. Formerly a chemist in her home country, she hopes to complete chemical training courses here in English.

Vera said her family has become more involved in the community, even purchasing a home, adding “all these things are possible because of people like you.”

“It’s been pretty positive,” said Schmitt by phone of the response to the virtual luncheon. “It was hard not to have the actual event and see everybody together, but Literacy Services is so grateful for everybody’s support of our students.”

For more information, visit


Leave a Comment