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story.lead_photo.caption Aaran Mattson, part-time program coordinator for Literacy Action of Central Arkansas, stands in the Faulkner County Library in Conway, where her office is. In August, Mattson will celebrate her third anniversary with the organization and said more tutors are needed to work with adults who are learning to read and with English as a Second Language students. Information is available at literacyactionar.org or by calling (501) 329-7323. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Aaran Mattson of Conway said she got “burned out” teaching in public school, but her work in literacy is a whole other story.

Mattson is the part-time program coordinator for Literacy Action of Central Arkansas. The organization teaches adults to read and speak English, and services are free. Literacy Action also offers tutoring for English as a Second Language students.

“It’s hard; it’s hard to teach someone to read,” Mattson said. “It’s also hard to hear their stories and realize — I’m going to get teary-eyed talking about it — what they’ve been through and all the coping skills they’ve had to develop to survive.”

The 46-year-old said some of the literacy students she tutors can’t read a menu, for example, so “they’ll say, ‘I’ll have what she’s having,’ or they have that one thing they get. … They can’t read labels on things in the grocery store.”

One longtime literacy student Mattson knows grew up picking cotton with his family, she said, and missed so much school that he couldn’t catch up with his education.

“One student said he was pushed through [school] because he was a good athlete, and they didn’t want to hold him back. Some have a disability,” she said, adding that some disabilities were diagnosed; some were not.

Mattson said it is estimated that 16 percent of adults in Faulkner and Pulaski counties lack basic literacy skills, which means they read at or below an eighth-grade level.

After graduating from Conway High School, Mattson went to the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and majored in English and minored in Spanish.

“I liked my literacy classes; I don’t think I had a plan,” she said.

Mattson’s mother urged her to take Spanish, and it was good advice.

“Mom started encouraging me in junior high. I’m not sure how she could foresee how important that would be,” Mattson said. “Spanish just came pretty easy to me; that’s why I stuck with the program.”

In college, Mattson also participated in an exchange program and lived in Puebla, Mexico, for a semester.

“I lived in the dorms and had seven suitemates who were all Mexican,” she said, which improved her Spanish. “I still use [Spanish] quite a bit in this job. I’m a little rusty because there have been breaks in my usage.”

After she graduated from UCA, Mattson went to work for a couple of years at what was FMC in Conway, now Snap-On Tools, as the Latin America customer-service account manager and used her Spanish there.

“Then I decided I wanted to try teaching. I felt like I wanted to do something that was giving back in a way,” she said.

Mattson was hired in the Guy-Perkins School District through the alternative certification program, which means she didn’t have a teaching certificate. Beginning in fall 1996, she taught English and Spanish at the junior high and high school for four years.

“I got burned out pretty fast” because of so many different classes, she said. “I decided I wanted to do something else.”

Between resigning and trying to figure out what she wanted to do, Mattson, who was then Aaran Fry, met her future husband, Scott. He was living and working in Fayetteville, so she moved there and started working as a receptionist for a dermatology clinic.

“I used my Spanish a lot up there,” she said.

After the couple got married, she started graduate school and earned a master’s in communication degree. She started working as a proofreader for a worldwide marketing agency.

“That was fun,” she said.

Three years later and pregnant with their second child, she and her family moved back to central Arkansas to be close to her parents, Teddy and Brenda Fry of Conway.

Mattson’s husband got a job at Lockheed Martin on the Little Rock Air Force Base. Today, he is a visual database engineer, creating graphics that pilots see in simulators, she said.

Mattson did freelance proofreading and was an adjunct teacher at UCA, then got a visiting lecturer position at the university.

She wanted a flexible job so she could take their kids to and from school.

“I found this job in the paper. I was like, ‘What is Literacy Action?’ Most people think the literacy council will be called that. Here, it’s Literacy Action,” Mattson said.

The organization merged with the Faulkner County Literacy Council in 2010. Mattson has one AmeriCorps member in the office. The Literacy Action of Central Arkansas headquarters is in downtown Little Rock in the Central Arkansas Library System’s main library.

Mattson is responsible for recruiting volunteers and making sure they get training in Little Rock or Conway.

“[Volunteers] don’t have to be certified or anything; we offer a one-day training workshop,” she said. “We pair them with students we have and do all the assessing for students.

Mattson also tutors on Thursdays.

“We stress that you do not have to be able to speak the first language of the person you’re tutoring,” she said. “We have people from all over the world; it’s not just Hispanics.”

She has 18 volunteers right now, but more are needed to tutor.

“We always have a waiting list. It’s not huge in Conway, but it’s always two or three people,” she said.

Last week, two students were waiting for tutors.

An English as a Second Language class meets at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays in St. Joseph Catholic School’s Spiritan Hall.

“ESL students come from all walks of life. We will see some who aren’t really literate in their native language, and we’ll see some who are highly educated in their own countries,” she said.

As well as setting her own hours, Mattson said, she enjoys working with the AmeriCorps members and Executive Director Marci Bynum Robertson in the Little Rock office.

Robertson, who started her job in November, said she is impressed with Mattson and what she brings to her position in Conway.

“I think one of the biggest things I see is her close ties to the Conway community,” Robertson said, “and I think the fact that she’s fluent in Spanish is incredible.”

Robertson said that overall, 60 to 75 percent of Literacy Action students in any given month are ESL students. Although not all of them are Hispanic, most of the ESL students in Conway are, Robertson said. In April, for example, 19 of the 33 Conway students were ESL students.

“When you’re able to speak to someone in their own language, that promotes an immediate connection,” Robertson said. “Her demeanor puts people at ease and makes them comfortable in what could be an uncomfortable situation.”

Mattson said she loves seeing the success stories.

“One of my previous AmeriCorps members had an ESL member who was able to get her citizenship,” she said. “I’ve had some students who have been able to get their driver’s licenses.

“I have a student personally who was about the fourth-grade reading level when she started, and now she’s at about the eighth grade. She wanted to be able to feel comfortable reading the Bible out loud at church, and I think she feels more comfortable now.”

August will be her third anniversary with the organization, one she wishes more people knew about and would utilize.

“I love feeling like I am being part of a solution. We firmly believe that adult illiteracy is at the root of a lot of socioeconomic issues,” she said. “My No. 1 goal would be just recognition in the community — that people know we’re here, that we provide this service.”

Because helping people have a better life never gets old, she said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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