When Irina Plotnikova and her husband, Sergey, immigrated to South Williamsport from Russia in 2003, she did not know any English.
She spent six months isolated in their home while he worked because she was intimidated not being able to communicate. She could not do the things that most people take for granted. Irina could not buy groceries, dial a telephone, drive a car, make a doctor's appointment or follow the plot of a simple TV program.
"I could not read, write or speak any English," Irina said recently. "I felt helpless and it was scary."
Irina Plotnikova, left, with The Learning Center teacher Stacey Noltee.
Then, Irina heard about The Learning Center, a program of the James V. Brown Library. The Learning Center offers classes and tutoring to adults who want to improve their reading, writing and math skills.
"I started taking the English Language Learning Classes three or four times a week," Irina said. "I was uncomfortable for the first few months. And sometimes I wanted to quit because I didn't understand. My husband was very supportive and encouraged me to keep going and to just listen if nothing else."
Sergey is a software engineer who learned English as a second language while the couple still was in Russia.
"Everyone was so patient at The Learning Center. There were other immigrants in the class from Turkey, China, Belgium, Greece, Mexico, and The Philippines. The teachers are very kind," Irina explained.
"It took me a long time to start to build my confidence, probably about a year or a year and a half," Irina said. "It was a slow and gradual process, but I kept at it and the teachers and tutors were so nice. My first instructor was Rosa Fry. She helped me tremendously when I was too shy to ask for help. Rosa helped me find a pediatrician and a preschool for our daughter, Anna, who was 4 years old when we came to America.
"The Learning Center not only taught me English, but also how to adapt to the local community and about American customs," Irina added.
Once Irina became more comfortable with English, she began additional classes at The Learning Center, including studying for her GED and participating in parenting classes. She also obtained her driver's license in 2005.
"We know that education is vital to employment and income. We offer, in addition to adult education and GED programs, a family literacy program, which is designed to give families an opportunity to share reading and fun-related activities together while participating in adult education and job skills training," said Linda Herr of The Learning Center. "Parents with educational goals and a child up to 8 years old can enroll in the family literacy program.
"With help from United Way, we are able to offer job skills training, tutoring, computer classes, and special events at no cost to program participants," Herr added. "We see a real need in our community for these services and we are appreciative United Way sees the need also and helps us help others. Together we are making positive changes in Lycoming County by giving people the tools they need to attain better employment."
Through its annual funds distribution process determined by community volunteers, United Way allocated $25,000 to The Learning Center.
"We are pleased to be able to fund The Learning Center because the programs it offers make a real difference in the lives of the students, their families (including future generations) and the local work force," said Kate Pacacha, director of resource development and communications at United Way.
In Russia, Irina attended medical college and was a mid-wife. Recently she became a volunteer at Susquehanna Health and plans to earn her degree and work in the medical field again.
For more information on The Learning Center, call 321-0200 or visit www.lycolearns.org.
For more information on Lycoming County United Way or to support the United Way campaign that funds programs like this one, call 323-9448.