Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council: Opening Up Lives Through Education

logo-gplc-homeThe Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council (GPLC) offers a wide range of free literacy programs to the community, including basic reading, writing and math, GED training, computer and workplace skills, English as a Second Language instruction and health literacy. From the Mt. Lebanon home of Mary Yardumian, the GPLC formed in 1976 with meager roots and just a few volunteers. Since then, it has expanded rapidly; growing to serve nearly 8,000 students in Pittsburgh each year.

The GPLC serves families with children and adult students with its family literacy and early education program. Despite the impressive numbers and scope of programming, the organization maintains its focus on the individual and continues to offer one-on-one and small group tutoring services on a volunteer basis.


GPLC Goes Further than Reading…

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges that the GPLC faces is that of educating the larger community about why literacy is so important and what, in fact, it means to be literate. “Most people who come to us can already read,” says Greg Mims, who has worked at GPLC for over 13 years. He says that students come to the training center because they want to acquire the skills necessary to accomplish their goals. “They need study skills, a GED, ubiquitous computer skills. (A student might say,) ‘I can’t go any further in my job.’ They are tired of being on welfare and need to reenter the job market. Perhaps they have been incarcerated.” GPLC understands that ‘literacy’ encompasses a wide range of skills, and that helping students to acquire them will enable them to become more successful employees, parents and citizens, Mims says.

The American-born students who need help with literacy skills attend the ‘ABE’ program. Mims proudly tells me about Nate, a former ABE student who attended GPLC classes for four years. “His reading and writing skills weren’t great when he came to GPLC. We helped him to learn how to read.” Nate learned study skills in addition to reading, writing and math, and his personal work ethic helped him to succeed. Mims says that Nate “was willing to work hard; he was always here. He never missed. Nate always wanted to be a pilot. CCAC (Community College of Allegheny County) offers an aviation program that Nate attends now.” Nate has since spoken at fundraising events, and has inspired some of his coworkers to earn a GED.


GPLC Adds GED Testing

GPLC has recently become a GED testing site. “We used to just train people,” says Mims, “but now can see students through the entire process” and GPLC covers the cost of the test for its own students. This coming January, Mims informs me, the GED will undergo some changes, becoming more difficult to pass. Those who have taken part of the test by that time but have not completed it will have to start at the beginning. This means that there is a greater incentive for students to finish before January of 2014, and the waiting list at the GPLC for GED classes and tutoring sessions is longer than ever. “We need more volunteers,” Mims says. GPLC trains volunteer tutors who can work with ABE or ESL students.


English as a Second Language Programs

The English as a Second Language (ESL) program is comprised of students who have immigrated to the United States, often as refugees from war-torn countries. There are currently a large number of Butanese refugees working with teachers and tutors. “They don’t take anything for granted,” Mims says. “They’ve lived in refugee camps (…) and now need to learn English in order to find jobs.”

GPLC has formed partnerships with 11 companies throughout Allegheny County. Included among these are the Rivers Casino, and various hotels; each hiring a large percentage of ESL students. The students can take advantage of preparatory mock interviews at GPLC. Most of them find out about the free ESL program by word of mouth, and they are also referred to the GPLC upon arrival to the US by social services organizations.

Teachers and tutors not only instruct in conversational English but also explain cultural norms to make the adjustment to a new country go a little more smoothly. They assist students with everyday tasks, such as deciphering a bus schedule in a new language, filling out job applications, or taking a child to the doctor’s office. GPLC instructors work to meet the immediate needs of their students while working toward long-term goals.

The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council continues to evolve and rise to the challenge of improving literacy levels within the constraints of a nonprofit organization. GPLC now manages a program called OASIS, a program in which senior citizens tutor children in grades K-3 in Allegheny County. GPLC is excited to approach literacy from this angle as well—supporting early literacy in addition to offering training for adults.

There is always a waiting list for services and an urgent need for volunteers.

To become a volunteer tutor for an ABE or ESL student, call 412-393-7600 or visit the website at

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Sarah Machinak

Sarah Machinak is a freelance writer and poet in Pittsburgh. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and a BS in Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. Her poems have been published in Weave Magazine, Caper Literary Journal, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.