The spotless office building of the Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry on S.C. 46 in Bluffton, with its bank of computers, is a far cry from the makeshift boat that carried 20-year-old Sauveur Alexandre and 80 others from Haiti through a storm-tossed Atlantic to Miami in the summer of 1980. Two died on the way.
Alexandre, now 52, arrived in this country after 19 days at sea with one year of schooling -- his father needed him to work on their farmland planting rice. After being interned at first, he and the other Haitian "boat people" were granted legal entry to the United States under a policy of the Carter administration.
For the past four years, Alexandre has faithfully trekked twice a week to the Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry Learning Center after work to get the education he missed out on as a child.
Under the guidance of Jim Pegolotti, a volunteer tutor with the literacy group, he has improved his English -- he began with only the street English he had picked up over the intervening years -- and has learned to read and write and do math.
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With Pegolotti's help, Alexandre applied for and received his citizenship.
Alexandre, a resident of Ridgeland and the Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry 2012 "Bill Bligen Adult Literacy Student of the Year," said he decided to avail himself of the services of the Literacy Volunteers for two reasons.
"I was pushed by my wife," he began with a laugh. Then, turning more serious, he added: "I felt empty without an education."
'I WAS BLIND. ... NOW I CAN SEE'
Pegolotti meets with Alexandre in one-on-one sessions for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday. By then, Alexandre has put in a full day's work at The Greenery, a local landscaping company, where he has worked for the past 19 years.
Alexandre, who only spoke his native Creole when he arrived in the United States, worked picking fruits and vegetables from fields in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia during his first years in this country, then did fiberglass work at a boat company before settling here and going to work at The Greenery.
Before turning to the Literacy Volunteers, he said he couldn't read and was unable to fill out forms presented to him, such as in a doctor's office. "I could put in my name and address but I had to have someone else fill it out," he explained.
Now, he said, he can pick up a book and read it.
"It was a new experience for me," he said. "It means a lot to me."
"I was blind. And now I can see."
To teach Alexandre to read, Pegolotti, a retired college chemistry teacher and administrator, said he began at the first-grade level, then moved to a series of books for second- and third-graders about a boy detective.
"He liked the stories," Pegolotti recalled. "They were funny, and he loved them."
From there, Pegolotti advanced to another series of books for the fourth grade, "Who Was," which provided stories about famous people in the United States, from Abe Lincoln to Walt Disney. These offered some history, he noted, in addition to serving as instruction for reading lessons.
Alexandre continued to move forward, ramping up to his present level making him ready to apply for citizenship.
What troubled him the most before he began his studies, he said, was that he was unable to help his older children with their homework as they were growing up. Now, he said, he can read books to his 3-year-old son, Samuel, and will be able to help him with his schoolwork as he grows up.
"That's joyful,'' he said.
Alexandre had the highest praise for Pegolotti, who has brought him so far.
"I couldn't ask for more," he said. "It's the best thing that has happened to me in my life ... to find somebody like Mr. Jim with so much compassion."
"I'm impressed," he said. "I didn't think I could learn that much at my age."
'PART OF THE LOWCOUNTRY'
Pegolotti, a native of Northern California, spent 20 years at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J., and another 20 years at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury until retiring in 1999. He moved to Sun City Hilton Head, where he now lives, in 2006. He previously worked with Literacy Volunteers in Danbury.
Asked what drew him to this work, he said two things.
"My parents came from Italy and needed to learn English," he said, giving him empathy with non-English speakers moving to this country. "And I guess ... part of it was helping people. And they are appreciative," he added.
Pegolotti, who speaks Italian, said that in Danbury he worked mostly with Brazilians, whose native tongue is Portuguese, and Ecuadorians. Here, he said he works mostly with Spanish speakers, mainly Mexicans, some Colombians.
Ruth Brenner, another Sun City resident with education credentials, serves as a volunteer tutor teaching a higher level basic English class for those who are just below starting work toward a GED.
Her class meets twice a week at St. Francis Catholic School on Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island. She said she has eight to 12 students in the class each semester.
Brenner, the Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry 2012 Volunteer Tutor of the Year, learned about the nonprofit soon after moving to Sun City four and a half years ago from Florida. She wanted to become a Literacy Volunteer but the only openings in Hardeeville were during the day and she wanted to work at night.
Brenner graduated from college with a bachelor's degree in elementary education but only taught for a few years before leaving to raise a family.
She said most of her students were not English speakers originally, but have lived in the United States for many years. A number come in at the sixth-grade reading and writing level. Her mission, she explained, is to get them up to a ninth-grade level.
"Most come into the program wanting to get GEDs," she said.
"Some students went to the school system in Hilton Head Island, but most only went to the eighth grade," Brenner said. "Some went to high school but didn't graduate. Sometimes work stopped them. Some had family problems."
Asked if the students were eager, she said, "They are there before the class starts ... and are very highly motivated." She further noted, "They all have jobs. They go home and shower and dress and eat before class."
Brenner said she enjoys her work as a tutor because it gives her the opportunity to become part of a community that she otherwise wouldn't know.
"Most of my students speak Spanish -- one is from Ukraine," she continued.
"Most are from Mexico but others are from Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.
"My path wouldn't cross that of these students," she said. "The class is stimulating. I can see the world through their eyes. Their experience is different than my experience."
"They know the Lowcountry," she added. "They are people who are part of the Lowcountry. They are not transient. They participate as Little League coaches and are active in St. Francis church and other churches. They are role models."
"Many came over with their parents when they were 11, 12 years old," she said, and some found school was too difficult. "When I talk about the volunteers, I talk about the students. Some of them blossom because now they are ready."