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LVA's Phyllis Colter retiring from ‘labor of love'

June 22, 2002|By VANESSA DE LA TORRE

Staff Writer

One couldn't miss the sparkly gemstone pin adorning the left side of her collar.

It spells "READ," capturing the message Phyllis Colter has sent as executive director of the local Literacy Volunteers of America. After 11 years of educating the public, Colter will retire from her "labor of love" Friday.

She said she has "the bug of lifelong learning," which she has hoped to inspire in her students over the years.

"Lifelong learning is what it's all about. If we can find something that's new to learn everyday, it makes a happier day for all of us," said Colter, 69, from the LVA office in the Imperial County Courthouse basement.


From her cheerful manner and lifetime of education, it seems she knows what she's talking about.

Colter was 4 years old by the time she read her first book, which came from the popular Bobsey Twins children's series. The only child of a military officer and a hospital administrator, who divorced early in her childhood, Colter got a lot of "preferential treatment" growing up in Lewisburg, Pa. She said her family constantly read her stories, and the more they read to her the more she wanted to read on her own.

"That's why it's so important that adults read, particularly parents," she said. "That's one of the most frequent goals of parents when they come in here: ‘I want to be able to read to my children.' And we agree with them."

Colter was 18 when she moved with her father and stepmother to Fort Bragg, N.C. The move led her to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she met one of her heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, and in 1955 received a bachelor's degree in liberal arts with an emphasis in elementary education. Along with the degree came a teaching credential that would come in handy later in her career.

Meeting her husband, Robert, 73, was much simpler. She said they "discovered each other" while he worked at Fort Bragg as a young parachuter with the rank of first lieutenant. This month they celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

The Colters have two children living in the Los Angeles area, Robert, Jr., 42, a systems analyst, and daughter Kacee, 40, who owns two Mexican restaurants.

More than a year after they married, the couple moved to California so Bob could finish his last semester at University of California, Berkeley. After moving east for awhile, they returned to California for good when Bob accepted a position with Westinghouse Electric in Sunnyvale, near San Jose. Then in 1968 they moved south to Ranchos Palos Verdes. There, Colter became a field trainer for the U.S. Census Bureau and worked as a volunteer for Voluntary Action Center. She also had a job at a camera shop.

So what brought them to the Imperial Valley? The maquiladora Chromalloy Southwest, where Bob, now a real estate broker, would work for 15 years, "crossing the border every day," his wife said.

Colter recalled the exact day her husband "dragged" her to Holtville: May 15, 1983. Maybe it was the "shocking" weather that left such a mark on her, or the pungent smell of sweet onions that hit her as they drove past a field being harvested. In any case, Bob promised they would live in the Valley for only two years, and so for the time being she considered herself a "dislocated spouse." Nineteen years later, however, she is happy to call it home. She also said she now makes the best sweet onion soup around.

Colter started teaching at Holtville Middle School and worked with the Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program in special projects. But after being motivated by her "inspiring" students, Colter left the classroom and entered another.

She became a student herself, and in 1988, received a master's degree in psychology from U.S. International University in San Diego. When she received her doctorate in education from USIU three years later, opportunity came knocking. The local LVA director had just resigned, and one of her librarian friends called and asked her to consider the position. It was May 1991.

"It was really a marvelous connection because I've always been interested in volunteerism and I've always been a teacher," said Colter, who turned in an application.

Literacy Volunteers of America, which recently merged with Laubach Literacy International to form Pro Literacy Worldwide, has about 450 affiliates across the nation.

Imperial Valley has around 70 volunteers who teach more than 300 students the four components of language: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Together they clock a total of 21,000 instructional hours annually.

"I feel that everyone can learn," Colter said. "None of us learn exactly the same way, and one of the reasons I feel LVA is so successful is that their philosophy is very much that way, too. ‘Anything that works' is what we used to teach."

She said an advantage to their program is that they work one-to-one with students, which means students can advance through the program at their own pace. And like many literacy programs, the tutoring is confidential.

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