It's Monday, a busy day for Keywi Terry. After a Sunday spent poring over microbiology and probability and statistics texts for his Trident Technical College studies, he's now helping other people with math at the T.C. Drayton Center on Meeting Street. He barely has time to grab a cup of coffee as he tutors three different students, each with their own problems.
Since the tutoring's done on an individual basis, Terry moves from table to table, sitting patiently with each learner. The air burrs with facts and figures, common denominators, improper fractions. The 28-year-old Terry, dressed in a blue and white striped shirt and brown pants and shoes, is tall but never imposing. His tone is gentle, his disposition sunny. He's only been at the center for two months, but he's completely at ease and seems to have a close bond with his students and colleagues.
Terry's work studies program has brought him to Trident Literary Association, a registered nonprofit that helps people at various levels of learning to boost their qualifications and improve their chances of getting satisfying employment. TLA serves 2,500 students a year, a mix of non-native speakers, undereducated adults, parolees, homeless people sent by Crisis Ministries, and individuals who just need to improve their reading skills or get a GED. Terry has 15-20 hours a week to work with about 15 students, each with their own particular learning requirements. His major challenge is dealing with their varying stages of literacy.
"On my first day, I walked in here with an open mind," Terry says in a soft yet authoritative voice. "But I didn't realize that the students had different literacy levels, some of them so low. It's amazing how many of them have gotten this far in life without certain skills. They have street sense and can take care of themselves, but it makes you wonder how many times they've been taken advantage of."
This has made Terry determined to help them raise their reading level so that they can "follow their dreams" — which often start with a better, higher-paying job. For example, one of Terry's colleagues at the center received much-needed support from Trident in her desire to escape mind-numbing work as a housekeeper and middle school cafeteria worker. Now she demonstrates her keen organizational skills at the center and is going for an associate's degree in social services.
Not everyone who walks into Drayton is as determined. A big part of Terry's job is to motivate his students, and he does that with calmly assured encouragement. "A lot of what I do is about connecting with them, understanding where they're coming from," he says without a hint of impatience. "I have to step back after I explain each concept and see if they get that concept. You have to go at their pace, not yours."
If that pace means that they need to take a break for a few weeks, Trident will phone them to check on their progress. "They're in a place they want to be," Terry explains with a slight shrug. "But it's funny. When you think about them, they come back through the door. We don't seek anyone; they seek us."
Whether his students are self-motivated or not, Terry always has plenty to keep him active at the center. He might be helping someone with addition or fractions one minute, then switching to elementary reading or social studies the next; Trident covers computer basics and literacy in health, finance and workplace matters too. "Your mind has to go from one thing to another," he says.
Terry's used to juggling tasks. He already has two degrees, both earned at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach. A native of Hampton Roads, Va., he stayed there to take care of his diabetic grandmother. He also found time to serve as a student government senator and president and acting president of the Student Federation, as well as participating in Habitat for Humanity projects, United Way's Day of Caring, and the American Heart Walk.
"I'm a humanitarian at heart," Terry smiles. He considers himself a natural born leader, and he certainly has an Obama-sized charisma to fit. Although his stint at TLA will end with this semester, he hopes to continue to help around the center and lead by example with volunteer work.
TLA relies on such donations of time as well as money. Its staff of 25 is assisted by 200 volunteers and dozens of community collaborators. The Department of Commerce's Success Unlimited, a grant for students that helps them to present themselves correctly in hiring situations, has aided 20 TLA students so far in four of its tri-county sites. The Association has also adopted WorkKeys, an assessment program that establishes a bronze, silver, or gold status for jobhunters that is then considered by 15 different regional businesses.
After his Trident Tech studies and volunteer work are complete, Terry plans to become a doctor and also spend some time working in the Third World. "I'm simply giving back for people's needs," he says. "It's not about what I get back. Even the slightest feedback is great, of course, and I might see their face light up when I help them. But it's not about that. It's about showing them the tools they need to help themselves."
Trident Literary Association
5416-B Rivers Ave • North Charleston, S.C. 29406 • (843) 747-2223 • www.tridentlit.org
What it is
TLA helps adults develop skills needed for getting jobs, becoming financially independent, and providing for their families.
What $25 would do?
Cover one student's fees for a year. Thanks to grants and donations, almost 40 percent of students pay nothing to study with TLA.
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