Literacy for Life tutor Barbara Powers looks over a new text with her student Moona Showah. (Susan Robertson, Virginia Gazette / June 26, 2014)

WILLIAMSBURG — Moona Showah's children often tell her she's the most excited student they've ever seen.

"My children say when the time comes, you drop everything, and you go to school," she said with a laugh.

By school they mean Literacy for Life, a nonprofit program that kicked off its 40th anniversary July 1. It has offered literacy services such as one-on-one tutoring to residents of greater Williamsburg for nearly four decades.

Getting a GED is Showah's primary goal, though not because she didn't have the opportunity to pursue an education in her youth. Showah, whose native language is Arabic, holds a high school diploma from her country and has a year of college under her belt, but she said that carries little weight in the United States.

Her English is good, but she'll be the first to tell you that her reading, writing and spelling need work. That's why she sought out the Literacy for Life program 20 years ago when it was located in the basement of a William and Mary dormitory.

She shelved her own schooling decades ago to start a family and raise children, but the desire remained. A newspaper item about the literacy program reignited her interest, and in February, she began working with a tutor and attending small group classes.

Showah said it's a welcoming atmosphere, and encourages other people who want to improve their English skills to reach out.

"We are helping each other too," Showah said of her partnership with her tutor, Barbara Powers. "I really want to learn, and she really wants to teach."

Asking for help with literacy can be extremely difficult for some people, according to program manager Fiona Van Gheem. She said learners tell her they feel at home and free of judgment from tutors and peers in the program.

Van Gheem said Literacy for Life works with speakers of 44 languages, including native English speakers. She noted that in 2013 Literacy for Life served 700 learners.

Powers, who has been tutoring for more than two years, learned about the tutoring program from a friend. She wanted to put her educational background to use, but was initially reluctant to volunteer because she didn't have experience as a teacher. She was also afraid it would be a big commitment.

She quickly changed her mind.

"If you have some free time, and you want to do something really meaningful with it, then this is a great opportunity," she said, noting that committing a few hours a week is a good start.

Literacy for Life provides all the training tutors need to begin working with learners, according to Van Gheem. She added that they even have continuing education for tutors and round-table discussions where they can share ideas.

Showah said Powers devoted a lot of time to pinpointing her weaknesses and developing a plan to build on her existing knowledge. With the support of her family, tutor and peers at Literacy for Life, Showah said she's not embarrassed if she gets something wrong. In fact, she welcomes corrections.

Joan Peterson, executive director of Literacy for Life, recalled the organization's meager beginnings in 1975 as an adult skills program. She said a William and Mary graduate student took it over a few years later without pay and grew the program. In 2010, it moved out of the basement and into an updated space in the new William and Mary School of Education building.

The program's longevity is what stands out to Peterson.

"It shows how important the service is (to greater Williamsburg)," she said. "There are not a lot of things that last that many decades."

A shortage of tutors is Literacy for Life's biggest obstacle.

Van Gheem said there is always a wait list of learners in need of tutors. Training sessions are held regularly for tutors. Literacy for Life requests that tutors commit to a minimum of 11/2 hours per week.

"That connection you make is so powerful," Van Gheem said. "And (so are) the changes you can make in someone's life."

Robertson can be reached at 757-345-2342.