Literacy tutor earns high marks

Judy Warner spent years struggling with reading. When her granddaughter asked her to read a Blue's Clue's book to her and Warner couldn't, Warner decided it was time to ask for help.

Now Warner not only reads to her granddaughter often, but she's become an avid reader herself. She's completed Jan Karon's Mitford series of books and several of Beverly Lewis' stories about Amish life.

Warner attributes her success to one person: her Bluegrass Literacy tutor Lavenia Baxter.

For the past two years, Baxter has helped Warner improve her reading skills at an adult basic English class sponsored by Bluegrass Literacy each Tuesday evening at the Living Arts & Science Center.

”I've learned a lot,“ said Warner, 59, who quit school after the 10th grade. ”When I first started, I didn't know my sounds. When I didn't know what a word was, she helped me with that.“

When Baxter began working with Warner, Warner was reading on roughly a third-grade level. Now Warner reads at a seventh- or eighth-grade level, Baxter said.

Currently, three adult learners regularly attend Baxter's Tuesday class. Usually, Baxter chooses a book that the group reads together. Right now, they are working on Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook.

Baxter, 60, finds that she often has to remind her students to slow down. New to reading as a hobby, they often approach the text as something to speed through, a task to get done. She emphasizes that reading is something they are doing for pleasure, that they need to take their time and let themselves enjoy the story, she said.

”I've had other tutors, but I really like her style,“ Warner said. ”She's plain. She's just Lavenia: a good tutor.“

Baxter has volunteered with Bluegrass Literacy since the program launched five years ago. Before taking on the adult basic literacy class she also led English as a second language classes at area horse farms and has helped lead summertime family literacy programs through Bluegrass Literacy.

She also is currently tutoring an adult refugee woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose family she met through her church, Good Shepherd Episcopal. Each Tuesday morning, the pair meet one-on-one so Baxter can help the woman, 48, learn English and to read.

Baxter has been ”an inspiration and like a godmother“ to the family, which includes 11 children, said the woman's daughter, Kammy Ngoyi, 23. (Ngoyi asked that her mother not be named.)

When the family arrived in Lexington nearly seven years ago, Ngoyi didn't know any English. Baxter immediately stepped in and began tutoring her and offering other help as well — providing clothing, trips to the doctor, and even buying her food card when she enrolled at the former Lexington Community College and moved into a dorm.

Ngoyi now speaks and reads English fluently, thanks to Baxter's help.

”When we first arrived, it was difficult for us to communicate with her,“ Ngoyi said. ”But she didn't give up on us. She helps my mom. She helps me. I see her almost every day. She's always there. She takes my little brother to school. She's really an inspiration. That's the only definition I can give her.“

”Lavenia is just a really consistent, caring, generous person,“ said Norma Spencer, director of Bluegrass Literacy. ”She builds empathy with all the students she works with. She's one of those people who goes beyond just literacy skills. She takes people to the doctor and gets to know the whole extended family. She does a lot of life skills support kinds of things.“

”I've always been drawn to people,“ said Baxter, who had careers as a legal secretary and an office manager before staying home for 10 years to raise her three daughters, who are now in their 20s. After her daughters were older, Baxter returned to work for a while as a teaching assistant and computer lab teacher for Fayette County Public Schools. Her husband, Tony, is a computer science faculty member at UK.

Needed a new role

A longtime volunteer with Girl Scouts and at her church, where she helped organize youth volunteer programs with Shriners Hospital and the Salvation Army, Baxter answered a call to become a literacy volunteer after seeing an ad in the paper, she said.

”I'd always been doing something, and I was ready to move on“ to another volunteer role, she said.

Baxter's longtime volunteerism has been literally life-changing for Juanita Golden, 46, who grew up in Lexington's Irishtown area.

Golden first met Baxter when she was 11 and Baxter was 25, through the Big Sisters program. (This was before the program merged to become Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Baxter said.)

Baxter would often pick up Golden to go shopping or to grab a hamburger. She gave her hand-me-down clothes and took her to the dentist. She helped her finish high school and even introduced the idea of attending college at Berea.

”Most people in that situation would treat you like, "Oh, look at me, I'm doing something good for this poor little child.' Then I'd feel like a poor little child. But Lavenia never made me feel that way,“ said Golden, who graduated from Berea College and now lives in Albany, Ga., with her husband and four children. There they run their own successful landscaping company and table-top linen service for weddings and special events.

Growing up, Golden lived in a ”really rough“ part of town, she said. Her parents were divorced. Her mother had only a first-grade education, and her father attended school only through the second grade. Getting an education wasn't something that was expected of her. ”You get pregnant and go on welfare, that's what was expected,“ Golden said. ”But Lavenia never expected that of me.“

"If I hadn't met her'

”When I met her, even the thought of finishing high school was out of this world. But going to college, that was just beyond. No one (in the family) had ever done it. If I hadn't met her, I probably would have been dropped out and pregnant by the time I was 12. That's where I was heading,“ Golden said.

Golden said she often thinks about the lasting effect Baxter has had on her life and on her children's lives.

”When my children get on the school bus in the morning, they're not on free lunch. They're not on welfare. That's all because of Lavenia,“ Golden said. ”She's just wonderful. If it hadn't been for her, I'd just be another statistic. It only took one person to make a world of difference.“

The relationship with Golden has been richly rewarding for Baxter, too, and the two remain in close contact. ”I always tell her I got so much from her friendship as well,“ Baxter said.

For now, Baxter plans to keep volunteering. ”I love to help,“ she said. ”It's allowed me to form friendships that will last forever.“