LEARN Bus helps new immigrants navigate their new home | Last Word | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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LEARN Bus helps new immigrants navigate their new home 

“They are very aggressive about getting what America promises.”

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They pile off two standard yellow school buses, roughly 80 people, all sizes and ages, wearing sweats and T-shirts; on their heads, some wear ball caps while others wear traditional multi-colored dhaka topis. Their eager, expectant faces gleam in the late-afternoon sun. They know they’re in for a treat — their monthly visit to something they never had in their native Bhutan: a visit to a free public library.

“First, they had to learn what a library is,” Whitehall Library director Paula Kelly says, smiling at the people flooding through the doors. “Coming from an agrarian, rural culture, from a country where they were a persecuted minority, they’d never even seen a library, much less used its many resources.”

While the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council’s LEARN (for Library Easy Access to Residents in Need) Bus program is noticeably robust, it was a decided slow starter. “At first,” Kelly says, “we couldn’t figure out why they weren’t coming. Then it hit us: They didn’t know what free is, what resources we have, what we could do for them. How we could make their lives richer, better.”

Together, GPLC and the Whitehall Library worked assiduously at presenting books, computers, CDs and DVDs, all available for loan, all for the asking. “Citizenship, in Hindi, is a favorite,” Kelly says, “as is All About the USA. English for New Americans. They watch YouTube videos from their homelands. And Facebook! They love Facebook.”

As well as the multipurpose room, for its arts and crafts. Story time with the children’s librarian. Even the tabletop carrom games — an Asian cross between Parcheesi and Nok-Hockey. “For them, LEARN Bus night is a huge event.”

It is as well for what Kelly calls a “sleepy little public library,” a clean, well-lighted 50-year-old building in a suburban, largely homogeneous neighborhood. Bring in a very different population — all of a sudden? “It took some doing,” she nods. “Some convincing. Some fundraising. But everyone here, from the people to the politicians, came to embrace it.”

As did the Nepalese (the victims of ethnic persecution in Bhutan). “They’re glad to come. They’re eager to come. They’ve become comfortable enough to ask for things. I love that.” She pauses. “Over the last two years we’ve issued 170 new library cards. Imagine that.”

Imagine that and more. Imagine these victories accomplished one person, one small refugee community at a time. Imagine victories made possible by gifted, dedicated people — GPLC and library staffers as well as hundreds of volunteers. For the Nepalese, and dozens of other groups, it is the promise of life, literacy and the pursuit of happiness that fuels their dreams on LEARN Bus night.

Although LEARN Bus night lasts just 90 minutes, GPLC efforts spill out into the Nepalese’s Prospect Park neighborhood. Learning citizenship, literacy and general life skills. Along the way they pick up medical skills, too. Finding that many Nepalese were missing literacy classes because of chronically sick children, GPLC staffers sought to discover the reasons. For example, offers GPLC’s Special Projects director Becky Carpenter, when given an oral medication for her child’s ear infection, one mother did the obvious thing: poured the liquid in the child’s ear.

Over more than 30 years, GPLC has tutored or otherwise helped some 4,300 people county-wide, people who work hard to care for their families, to become acculturated, to become citizens. “They are very aggressive about getting what America promises,” says GPLC spokesman Greg Mims.

Echoes one man, in this country two years, now working, now supporting his family, “America,” he gestures, “is the greatest country in the world.”

Tonight that greatness is figured in a special treat: the decidedly slapstick Gemini Children’s Theater presenting Tarzan-and-Jane sketches. In the packed all-purpose room, Tarzan performs simian stunts. While the adults smile indulgently, the children roar with laughter.

Sliding into an outrageous lost-in-the-jungle bit, Tarzan and Jane act out questions useful to the emerging Americans — how to use a cell phone. How to read a map. How to speak to an English-only speaker. Jane is obviously lost, confused, a condition the Nepalese know well.

Jane found, Tarzan beating his chest, the kids all race to the front of the room to dance with the pair. The music is loud, the kids raucous.

Standing in back, Paula Kelly smiles. “You fall in love,” she gestures. “I may work here, but this is also personal. I’m making a difference for them. But they’re also making a difference for me.” She pauses. “LEARN Bus is the best night of the month for me."


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