A pair of light bulb moments changed the direction of Lynne Price’s life.

The first came when she was working in the aerospace industry and realized she wanted to go in a different direction. She enrolled in Patten University in Oakland and earned a degree in Christian Education.

From there, she began tutoring children in San Francisco. Her work included sitting in on meetings with parents, administrators and teachers as they discussed individualized educational programs for students.

“After the parents would leave, I’d overhear the teachers. They’d hold up some papers and say, ‘I had all this material prepared and they didn’t even read it.’ I realized in that moment that the parents couldn’t read,” says Price, who is working on her master’s degree in education.

She switched from children’s to adult education, and in 2003 became director of the literacy and English as a Second Language program at the Benicia Public Library. She heads a team of about 30 trained volunteers who lead weekly workshops and labs plus provide one-on-one tutoring to about 120 adults each year.

Volunteers are key to the program, especially since the state eliminated all funding for ESL programs last June. Price looks for volunteers who understand that learners are on equal footing with tutors.

“Everyone in our program is intelligent. They have to be to navigate the world when they don’t read or write,” says Price, 53. “So they have a certain skill set, and the volunteers have a different set of skills, and they learn from each other.”

Why do you work on raising adults’ reading and language skills?

When I was watching those IEP (Individualized Educational Program) conferences, I couldn’t imagine a life where I couldn’t read or write. I couldn’t imagine getting on BART and riding all day because you didn’t know where to get off. …

We don’t often think about how we learned to read and write. I once saw a documentary where a man who worked as a cook in a restaurant only knew what to cook because of the pictures on the labels. I just can’t imagine a life like that.

How does raising literacy levels improve an entire community?

I think of it kind of like a ripple in a pond. If you are a volunteer and you help an adult, they can help their child, they can talk to the teacher, they can buy a card for their husband or wife. If they are a low-level learner, it makes a difference.

Building those skills strengthens that family. They feel good and can go to the Farmer’s Market, they can go to the PTA meeting, they can vote—all the things that make them part of the community. A voiceless group now has a voice.

How have funding cuts affected your program?

As a result of state cuts—$3.7 million was cut statewide for ESL programs— we were forced to eliminate four to five positions in June [2011]. It was really difficult to see how that can change a program.

What changes did you see?

I think some learners went away when saw there wouldn’t be the ESL classes they were used to. Many needed those classes to prepare them to work with a tutor later.

What adjustments have you made in response to the cuts?

Your thinking cap goes on. I think to myself, I wonder if I did this, would they like it? If I tried that, will they come back? The possibilities for creating are endless.

It’s exciting. It compels you to really see what’s out there in terms of possible partnerships. …

We’re using the Mango program more for those learning English. We have a lab every Monday morning, but it’s also online and people can use it at home.

I love this. I just think it’s so cool! A Korean can understand this, someone from Poland can understand this, and people who speak English can learn another language with it.

It’s free to anyone with a Benicia or SNAP (Solano Napa and Partners) library card. [To access Mango, go to benicialibrary.org, click on the Literacy link on the left-hand side of the page, scroll down the Literacy page and click on the Mango logo on the left-hand side of the screen.]

How many adults in your program are improving literacy and how many are learning English?

About half are in the literacy program, and about half are in ESL.

We usually work with people at or below an eighth-grade reading level. When you look at the job market, employers have lots of people then can hire and they can be very particular. They may have had a job where they didn’t have to read, but now they need to.

In the ESL program, many are from other countries, and many times they are degreed and credentialed. But they’re not able to work here because of the certification requirements. You have to pass the test here to get the credential here.

What’s next for the literacy and ESL program?

We’re going to be here—we’re not going anywhere.

I would love to see people realize how important literacy is. I’d love to see a business adopt our program every month or every other month. You know, every September Dr. [Barry] Parish for three years has offered discounted teeth whitening and donated all the proceeds to the literacy program. I would love to have more of that kind of sponsorship. I would love to have someone put us in their will so they’d know their estate would help fund adult literacy programs for years to come.

What motivates you to continue despite the financial challenges?

You can tangibly see your work make a difference in someone’s life. It’s awesome to see someone read to their kids or get excited about getting a job or get excited about getting a library card.

21st Annual Trivia Bee

Tickets go on sale Feb. 1 for the 21st annual Trivia Bee, the largest fundraiser each year for the library’s adult literacy and English as a Second Language program. Tickets are $25 each and are available at the library.

The fundraiser features a silent auction, dinner and teams answering trivia questions in three rounds of competition. Teams usually dress up to complement the theme, often elaborately so. This year’s theme is “Clue,” as in the classic board game and campy movie. The Clocktower doors open at 6pm, Feb. 25 for the fundraiser.

The popular event raises as much as $18,000 each year for the literacy and ESL program.

“It’s a fun night,” says adult literacy director Lynne Price. “How often do you go to a fundraiser and have that much fun? This not just hearing someone talk, you get to bid on items, play along during the trivia bee and have dinner with friends."