Joe Distelheim was an observer.
It was his job in a career in newspapers. His was once city editor at The Charlotte Observer when it won the big one, a Pulitzer Prize. In his 15 golden years on Hilton Head Island with his wife, Dottie, Joe observed something other than misplaced apostrophes and ways to improve a newspaper, like that time he hired Mitch Albom at the Detroit Free Press.
Mitch Albom, you know, of “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Here, Joe Distelheim observed something that many do not. And he did something about it.
He tutored those on the edge of society, immigrants with a desire to live the American dream of upward mobility through hard work and ingenuity.
For more than a decade, Joe and his teaching partner Rob Arnold taught a pair of two-hour classes per week at The Literacy Center during a nine-month school year, helping immigrants get over the major stumbling block of language.
He sometimes wrote stories for The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette about the people he was helping to master English and become full participants in the community. It was always a clear and rare look inside another world in our own hometown.
Last Thursday evening, four such students were honored with a $500 check and commemorative tray as the first recipients of the Joe Distelheim Award for Literacy.
After Joe died in January 2020, friends wanting to honor his life contributed more than $40,000 to create the literacy award. This fund within the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry will enable four exemplary students annually to be rewarded with $500.
Some of the journalists mentored by Joe, including two who also were on Pulitzer Prize teams, came to the first presentation, held at the Hilton Head campus of the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
Volunteer tutors in the program that is now part of Bluffton Self Help introduced their stars.
Gerardo Rivera owned a printing company employing five people in his native Venezuela. He has been in America for two years, living in Bluffton with his wife and three children. He works for an electrical contractor.
Night classes make for a long day, but he never misses.
His tutor Carolyn McClung said, “He practices his English in the morning before going to work using Duo Lingo.”
Kathia Salinas often came straight to class from work, grabbing a banana in between. She came to this country to seek work in dentistry. The help she gives fellow students is like her life outside the classroom, said her tutor, Marlene Cathcart.
“She showed me what must have been hundreds of pictures in her native Honduras of her and her colleagues going to remote villages providing free dental care,” Cathcart said. “And this year at Christmas, she collected, packaged and shipped toys to an orphanage in Honduras.”
Cathcart was impressed with the courage it takes to come to a new country by yourself, not knowing the language.
“She still celebrates the traditions of her home country, such as the Quinceanera,” Cathcart said, but she has dived into traditions of her new land, like going to a drive-in movie with her boyfriend.
Maria Medina was a nurse in Puerto Rico. Taking the English classes will help her get there in this country, and help her assist her children as they enter school.
Mary Lee Stephens, one of her tutors, said, “She has twin boys with special needs, a young daughter and two adult brothers who live with her and her husband. Needless to say, that’s a busy household to manage and still she always finished her homework and came to class prepared each week.”
Stephens said her pupil was elated recently when she was able to understand every word in a conference with her sons’ therapists.
Zohra Tebbakh, whose first languages are Arabic and French, works at the Hardeeville Piggly Wiggly as a cashier.
“To demonstrate her commitment to the ESL program, she rode a bicycle to class,” said her tutor, Kathy Stutesman. “Recently her husband bought a motor scooter that she now drives to class. The weather does not matter to her. We have offered to drive her home when it’s rainy. Her response has been, ‘I have a raincoat, it’s no problem.’ ”
Joe Distelheim is gone, but is still helping us see our community better.
David Lauderdale may be reached at LauderdaleColumn@gmail.com.
DAVID LAUDERDALE | Senior editor
Read more at: https://www.islandpacket.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/david-lauderdale/article260903792.html#storylink=cpy
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