HANAPEPE — Kanani Santos was never a good student. He seldom paid attention in class and his relationship with teachers was subpar.
Add those traits to a lack of commitment and focus, and the sum was that reading and writing had been difficult for the 39-year-old business owner.
But his perspective changed two years ago.
“It took me a while to wake up. In my older years, I felt like it’s time to grow as a person,” Santos said. “I can’t stay on that level. I wanted to be successful at my business. I wanted to do things. I wanted to make something out of my life. In order to do that, reading and writing are the fundamentals of life.”
Santos connected with Dennis Dresser, coordinator for Kauai Adult Literacy, a branch of Hawaii Literacy. Established in 1971, the volunteer-run nonprofit has helped thousands of adults learn to read and write and improve their skills.
“We see these people come out, get their citizenship, get good jobs,” Dresser said. “It just does the heart good.”
With a dozen tutors and three students, the Kauai branch is seeking students for the free program.
About one in six adults in Hawaii struggle with reading and writing, including 5,600 adults on Kauai, according to Hawaii Literacy. In the nation, that number ranges between 30 million and 40 million.
Though the numbers are staggering, Santos said nobody should be ashamed to admit they cannot read or write.
“Shoot for the stars, man, apply yourself. Nothing’s going to happen if you just sit on your okole,” Santos said.
Learning is something Sayan Flamm of Kalaheo knows well.
“The more you learn, the more you know every single day. Don’t be shy. I’m 60 and I keep going,” Flamm said.
Born in a poor family and originally from Thailand, Flamm was forced to abandon school at 10 years old.
Eventually, she achieved her dreams and made it to the states 25 years ago. Though she married an American, she never learned English.
“I never have time to learn because I was working so much,” she said.
She doesn’t remember when she first entered the program, but she’s grateful for meeting her tutor of two years, Mary Kay Hertog.
“To me it’s more important she understands what she reads versus the pronunciation,” said Hertog, who volunteers two days a week to tutor Flamm. “They work full-time jobs, they have families, but regardless of how tired they are, they find the time to come and sit down with me for two to four hours a week. Their whole goal is to not just make life better for themselves but their families, too.”
After a year of tutoring, Flamm decided to study for her U.S. citizenship. It took a year to achieve her goal.
“We would study. We would spend a half an hour during the lesson, doing the citizenship test,” Hertog said. “She probably knows more answers to civics questions than most American kids because we don’t get that in school anymore.”
On May 2, Flamm called Hertog. She passed.
“I started crying because we had worked so hard,” Hertog said. “It was just so emotional for both of us. It was nice to see her achieve that goal.”
Flamm continues to see Hertog every Wednesday and Friday at Koloa Public School Library.
“Now that I know English, everything is comfortable and everything is easy,” she said.
The program may seem simple at first, Santos said, but taking baby steps is necessary to overcome more difficult lessons and, ultimately, achieve goals.
“If anybody is out there and they feel like they could do better, my suggestion is to do it,” he said. “If you don’t have teachers to help you learn or teach you the correct way to pronounce words or break down words, it will be a lot harder for you to learn. (The program) helps out a lot of people. I hope it doesn’t die.”
Info: Dennis Dresser at 332-5544 and firstname.lastname@example.org.