Heather Lambert grew up in Maine’s foster care system, entering state custody when she was two months old and aging out at 18. During that time, she lived in 40 different foster homes and attended 15 different schools the length and breadth of the state. By the time she was on her own, she was already making critically bad choices about drugs, school, alcohol, men and the law, choices that developed into serious substance abuse, landed her in prison and cost her custody of two young daughters.

Given all the instability in her young life, it is unsurprising that Lambert never finished high school. She dropped out in eighth grade, missing out on crucial years of learning, extracurricular opportunities, social maturation and, ultimately, that all-important high-school diploma. There are many life decisions you can’t undo, but now, at 25 — clean, sober and the doting mother of a sweet, six-month-old boy named Ezekiel — Lambert’s looking to get her life on track. And she’s got help doing it.

On a recent Monday morning, Lambert met with her Literacy Volunteers of Bangor tutor, Jen Montgomery-Rice, in the living room of Lambert’s tidy basement apartment at the Shepherd’s Godparent Home, a residential facility in Bangor for pregnant women and young mothers. The two have been meeting regularly for almost a year, ever since Lambert learned she was pregnant and decided to take advantage of the facility’s focus on helping young mothers learn healthy parenting skills, finish high school, develop a career, find long-term housing and stabilize and take control of their lives in other ways.

Lambert knew the key to all these changes lay in improving her language skills and earning her high school equivalency. The Shepherd’s Godparent Home put her in contact with Literacy Volunteers and she started meeting with Montgomery-Rice at the end of last September.

“Before I started with Jen, I could barely read or write,” Lambert said. More specifically, she explained, she had trouble with remembering what she read, thinking critically and using the conventions of grammar, punctuation and style to express herself in writing. The months of tutoring have increased her reading comprehension and sharpened her writing skills.

Within the next few weeks, she plans to take the intimidating HiSET exam — also known as the High School Equivalency Test — which will measure her knowledge of math, science, English, social studies and writing. She’s been working hard in all these areas with Montgomery-Rice and another tutor and has done well on numerous practice exams. If she passes the HiSET — “I’m pretty confident I will,” she smiled — she’ll receive a state-issued document that is the widely accepted equivalent of a high school diploma.

She’s not stopping there. “I’d like to go to college while Ezekiel is young so I can go to work and support him,” she said. A three-year program in substance abuse counseling feels within reach, now that she knows and trusts that she has what it takes to succeed in school — the ability to grasp and retain new information; the self-discipline to read carefully and think critically; and the skill to write a well-reasoned and articulate essay.

And, as a recovering addict herself, she feels strongly about helping people escape from substance abuse and addiction.

“My addiction almost took my life,” she said, “so now I want to help others who are struggling with addiction.”

Matching students with volunteers

From filling out job applications and signing school permission forms to advancing educational goals and becoming an informed citizen and voter, the ability to read and write is essential to full participation in contemporary society. For 50 years, the volunteer tutors at Literacy Volunteers of Bangor have been helping area residents improve these skills.

“Our volunteers always tell us they get as much or more out of this experience than they put into it,” said Mary Marin Lyon, who has led the agency since 2003. And while helping people of different backgrounds and abilities improve their literacy has always been the goal, she said, it is best achieved by establishing a supportive relationship between students and volunteer tutors.

“Content matters, of course, but it is also about building self-esteem and the confidence to trust your decisions and your instincts,” Lyon said. The agency makes a priority of pairing up each new student with a volunteer whose experience, interests and personal style are likely to connect positively with the student’s.

And, as the Bangor area attracts a surprisingly diverse population, that calls for a diverse lineup of volunteer tutors as well. In addition to native Mainers and English-speakers like Heather Lambert, Lyon said recent students have come from Asia, the Middle East, West Africa, Russia, Scandinavia, Central America, South America and elsewhere. Most arrive here through normal immigration routes to work in businesses ranging from health care and higher education to agriculture, food service and nail salons. And while foreign-born professionals typically have good mastery of English language and American culture, she said it’s not unusual for a spouse or dependents to need some one-on-one help getting up to speed.

That doesn’t mean the agency expects to recruit a stable of multilingual, multi-ethnic volunteers, Lyon said — only that volunteers can expect to encounter a range of cultural, educational and linguistic challenges in helping their students identify and meet their goals. Those goals are diverse, too — including preparation for the HiSET, passing the U.S. Citizenship Exam, learning to read Bible passages for a faith-based drug rehab program, navigating health care complexities and managing private business contracts.

Literacy Volunteers of Bangor maintains an active roster of about 250 volunteer tutors. They come from backgrounds in business, teaching, homemaking, health care and more. New volunteers are always in demand; the agency will host its annual 5-session training for tutors beginning Sept. 25.

Far-reaching benefits

For Jen Montgomery-Rice, who is 52 and lives in Hampden, Literacy Volunteers has provided an ideal outlet for her personal interests and professional skills. Ten years ago, she left her career as an elementary school teacher in order to help care for her infant granddaughter while the baby’s young parents finished college.

That’s also when she heard Mary Marin Lyon being interviewed on the radio and decided to explore the possibility of volunteering as a tutor. “The time you work is flexible with Literacy Volunteers,” she said. “That was a huge draw for me, because I wanted to be available for my granddaughter whenever I was needed.”

Since then, she has worked with students from a wide range of backgrounds, including many whose lives are very different from her own.

“As a volunteer, you need to leave all your judgments at the door,” she said. “Once you get to know people one-on-one, you see that we all have our challenges and faults and wonderful talents. People just need to be connected with the right resources and get the right encouragement to move forward.”

“I like working with people like Heather who are struggling to get on their feet,” Montgomery-Rice continued. “These kids at 13 and 14 make bad decisions that can ruin their lives. They deserve to have all the help they can get.”

In addition to working directly with Lambert, Montgomery-Rice, who now owns the Parkside Children’s Learning Center, checks in every visit with Ezekiel — playing with him, asking about his developmental milestones and bringing age-appropriate books and other activities for Lambert to share with him. By nature, she loves the time she spends with the baby. But it’s part of her professional training to help her client cultivate a love of books, reading and language in her little boy.

“I’m someone who believes in doing things that help everyone in the community,” Montgomery-Rice said. “And improving one person’s literacy is a benefit to the whole community.”


Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.