Literacy Network of South Berkshire
Did you know that the Berkshire region has the most diverse immigrant population in Massachusetts? As the Executive Director of the Literacy Network of South Berkshire (LitNet), Leigh Doherty has the pleasure of working with immigrants who represent 30 different countries across the globe and speak more than 18 different languages collectively, and that’s just a fraction of what the region hosts! The mission of the 30-year-old organization is to “transform the lives of adult learners, both immigrant and U.S.-born, through the power of literacy, education, and advocacy.”
The organization was founded in 1991 by Zoë Dalheim and Peg Smith in partnership with the Lee Library Association as a resource for one-on-one tutoring to improve literacy skills among adults in Berkshire County. Informed by shifting demographics, over the years LitNet has expanded its curriculum with lessons in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and adult basic education to provide opportunities to immigrants who live and work in the Berkshires.
LitNet’s 150 tutors represent a variety of professions including educators, business and medical professionals, artists, and service providers. What they all have in common is “empathy of heart and mind,” a quality that Leigh says makes for a great tutor. But even more than their role as tutors, these volunteers are mentors, community liaisons, and advocates to the learners. For those who have just arrived in the Berkshires or the country, LitNet’s tutors are often pivotal to the transition into American cultural life.
Through a partnership with the Berkshire Immigrant Center, LitNet also hosts a program for immigrants pursuing citizenship to coach people through the requirements of the English and civics exams. With the support of a local donor, Matthew and Hannah Keator, LitNet recently launched the Matthew and Hannah Keator Family Scholarship for New Americans which helps to offset the cost of the federal naturalization process, including legal services and application fees.
Beyond language skills, LitNet is interested in fostering lifelong enrichment opportunities for LitNet’s learners. LitNet has teamed up with faith-based organizations, medical providers, and educational groups to form a coalition called BASIC (Berkshire Advocacy and Services to the Immigrant Community). These service providers have observed the challenges faced by documented and undocumented immigrants when it comes to assimilating to life in the Berkshires and collectively aim to make the region more accessible for those who speak different languages.
One way BASIC hopes to achieve this goal is through financial literacy, which can help learners build skills and knowledge to launch their own businesses. Leigh points out that many of LitNet’s learners have gone on to open their own businesses that meet the needs and fill the gaps of the local economy, including service-based like landscaping and cleaning and food-based like restaurants and specialty foods stores. Leigh impresses that immigrants are vital to the fabric of our community and economy. She is proud to accept BerkShares which celebrates local pride and diversity in our local region, just like the work at LitNet.
LitNet is celebrating its 30th anniversary with an event on September 11, 2021. Tickets can be purchased at www.litnetsb.org