Change in immigration policy sparks surge in enrollment at Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry

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Change in immigration policy sparks surge in enrollment at Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry

BY SHERRY CONOHAN
Special to Lowcountry Life
Published Sunday, February 17, 2013   |  671 Words  |  

A boom in enrollment has developed at the Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry, the result of many young people trying to earn their GED in order to quality for the two-year deportation deferment offered to children of illegal immigrants under a program announced by President Barack Obama in June.

The applicants are looking to upgrade their basic skills in preparation for GED courses.

Under the Obama's program, the United Sates will stop deporting some illegal immigrants who came here as children and are otherwise law-abiding residents.

To qualify for the two-year reprieve from deportation, the immigrants must be younger than 30, must have come to the United States before the age of 16, must have either obtained a high school diploma or a GED or be serving in the military or have an honorable discharge, and must be able to prove they have lived in the States continuously for five years.

If they meet those requirements, they may apply for a work permit, but will not be granted legal status.

During the Literacy Volunteers last full year of operation, which ran from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, the organization served a total of 631 students.

During the first four months of the new operating year, beginning this past July 1 and running through Oct. 31, enrollment was up 43 percent, rising from 403 during those months in 2011, to 577 during the same four months this year.

Students may enroll and start classes at any time -- they don't have to wait for the beginning of a new semester -- so the trend could continue steadily.

While Obama's policy was controversial when he introduced it, Nancy Williams, the recently retired executive director of the Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry, said late last year that the controversy would have no impact on the services the nonprofit offers.

The Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry program aims to help anyone who wants to improve their literacy so as to have greater opportunities in their work and life, she said.

"We are seeing a great number coming to our program because they can see it as a way to advance their education and get a work permit," she said.

The Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry currently serves its constituents on an annual budget of $357,000.

"It used to be bigger," Williams said. "It used to be over $400,000. At one time, we had resources of half a million. But now economic times are harder."

She reported 65 percent of the organization's funding comes from private sources -- grants and individual contributions, 25 percent comes from the United Way, 5 percent comes from program fees and 5 percent from government funds.

Program fees for students currently are $50.

The fees are imposed not just for the revenue but to get a commitment from the student to the lessons they will receive.

The students -- all adults -- are instructed by 136 volunteer tutors.

To be a volunteer tutor, a person must be 18 and have a high school diploma -- and the desire. Each tutor gets 12 hours of training at the minimum.

"It gives them the tools and confidence they need," Williams said.

Tutoring is offered at seven sites -- two in Bluffton, two in Beaufort, two in Hilton Head Island, all in Beaufort County, and one in Hardeeville in Jasper County. The literacy group is looking to expand in both counties, particularly Jasper, where Williams said there is even a greater need.

"It is estimated than 10,000 adults in Beaufort County -- 11 percent of the population -- are of low literacy," she said. "In Jasper County there is even a greater need -- 27 percent of the adults in Jasper County are of low literacy."

But it isn't all gloom from her perspective.

"I think I see encouraging signs," she said, "that people see the connection between education and workforce development."