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Karen Madura-Carroll, left, who oversees students and tutors at the Antioch Library, talks with Gladys Leeks, right, of Antioch, who was involved with Project Second Chance, at the Antioch Library in Antioch, Calif., on Wednesday Feb. 6, 2013. Leeks signed up for Project Second Chance and got free tutoring that the county library offeres for adults who struggle to read. Last week, Leeks, who began with the reading level of a fourth or fifth grader, recently finished a 12-book series and has started using a Kindle to read more advanced titles. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

ANTIOCH -- Gladys Leeks speaks with a confidence that belies the lifelong struggle she hid for decades.

Unable to read menus, she often ordered cheeseburgers. Without being able to read the signs for "push" and "pull," Leeks hedged her bets when opening a door by trying both in quick succession. And without the skills to navigate a phone book, dialing 411 was the only option if she needed a number quickly.

But in the past 2½ years, the Antioch grandmother of six has been exorcising her shame while showing the world that it's never too late to learn to read. At 69, Leeks has progressed from never reading books to tackling novels, an accomplishment that earned her a trip to the White House and recognition for Project Second Chance, a free tutoring service the Contra Costa County library system offers adults who read or write at or below the sixth-grade level.

"I lost so many friends because I didn't answer emails and I never sent thank-you cards," Leeks said.

Such a price for not being able to read comes as no surprise to Laura Seaholm, program manager of Project Second Chance.

"If you grow up in our country, people expect that you know how to read, so (illiteracy) becomes a secret that a lot of people keep," she said.

The 178 individuals enrolled countywide have various reasons for wanting to rid themselves of that burden. Job seekers need to be able to fill out applications. Others want to move up in their company. Parents long to help their children with homework.

In Leeks' case, childhood hadn't included bedtime stories and trips to the library.

"Books and reading was not in my life at all," she said.

But as Leeks describes those early years, the picture of a resourceful young woman emerges.

Leeks, who lost her mother when she was an infant, bounced between relatives in West Virginia, San Francisco and Kansas. By the time she graduated from the sixth grade, she had attended 13 schools.

Her aunts were too busy to read to her, so Leeks would turn the pages of storybooks and invent a narrative.

Adding to the challenge, Leeks and those she has worked with at Project Second Chance believe she has dyslexia, a neurological disorder that has nothing to do with intelligence but impedes her ability to process the written word.

Leeks has spent most of her life laboring to dissect words phonetically because she didn't know the sounds each letter makes.

She developed strategies for avoiding the spotlight in class: When a teacher had students take turns reading a book aloud, she would complain of a fever or take advantage of her propensity for nosebleeds and escape to the nurse's office.

When homework questions came from a textbook, Leeks would scour the chapter for words matching those she'd seen the teacher write on the chalkboard while discussing the topic and copy them.

But even these tricks eventually failed her, and at 16 she dropped out of school at a fifth-grade reading level.

In the years that followed, Leeks worked as a supermarket checker, department store salesclerk and baby sitter as she continued relying on her street smarts to save face.

It was Leeks' success on another front that finally gave her the impetus to start turning her life around.

She had shed 104 pounds on Weight Watchers and wanted to work for the company.

Leeks sought help filling out the application and landed her dream job, but it meant reading flip charts when making presentations at meetings, so one of her sons suggested she contact Project Second Chance.

She signed up in September 2010, and with the help of a tutor, Leeks learned to recognize written vowels and pronounce them, became acquainted with spelling rules, and practiced using the dictionary.

Although there were times of frustration, Leeks never talked of quitting.

"I never had the inkling that that was a consideration," said her former coach, Jim Bowers.

She marked a milestone 14 months ago when she received a Kindle and downloaded a children's book. Leeks moved on to adult fiction and for the first time experienced the pleasure of being engrossed in a plot.

"(Before) I didn't even know there was any enjoyment in reading," she said.

These days she's happier and busy, said her son James Rael. Leeks reads Dr. Seuss to her granddaughter, shares her story publicly, and has traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend an awards ceremony honoring the county's library system.

"When she's telling me she's speaking to groups of college-age women or at the White House, I say, 'Mom, yeah, whatever -- I'm not surprised. You're a rock star,'" Rael said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141.

How to help
Project Second Chance is taking sign-ups for those interested in getting the training needed to tutor others.
Training sessions are 6:30 to 8 p.m. April 24, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 27 and May 4 at the Contra Costa County Library, 75 Santa Barbara Road in Pleasant Hill.
Tutors must be at least 21 years old, submit a writing sample, and be prepared to spend two 90-minute sessions per week with their student for a year.
For details or to apply, go to www.ccclib.org and click on "Learn to Read," or call 925-927-3250 or 925-754-8317.