PLEASANT HILL — For the first five decades of his life, Ralph “Ike” Eikanger couldn’t read. With the help of Project Second Chance, the Contra Costa County Library’s adult literacy program, Eikanger can now not only read and write, he’s published a book, “A Journey from Illiteracy to Poetry.”
“Project Second Chance is a place you can find yourself,” Eikanger wrote in his book. “It is a place that can envelop you in learning. It is a place of letters. Project Second Chance is a place of warm and friendly people. PSC is a place of hope.”
Eikanger was in his early 50s when he decided to learn how to read.
“I was working at the Concord Naval Weapons Station for 30 years, so I decided 22 years ago I wanted to read if I want to upgrade my job,” he said.
So he sought the help of a PSC tutor whom he worked with from 1991-1994. Five years later, he was paired with tutor Helen Beyer who’s been his tutor since.
Beyer said that through the years, she’s witnessed how Eikanger, now retired at 76, has progressed.
But the road to literacy wasn’t always smooth.
“I was scared to death,” Eikanger said of his first PSC meeting. “I didn’t want to go to that meeting. I didn’t want a teacher for a tutor.”
Eikanger, who was born paralyzed on his right side which caused brain damage, said that as a child in school he was traumatized by the red pencil markings that taunted him — a reminder of his inability to read and write.
Through the years, Beyer gave Eikanger writing exercises and “cold reading, which is timed and Ike did well,” she said.
So well, that she and Eikanger proofread his book together.
He said he still goes to PSC for tutoring because his brain damage creates difficulty in retaining information.
Eventually, as he began to learn to read, Eikanger gravitated to creative writing to record his personal experiences.
“PSC wanted me to write something, so my wife suggested why don’t I write about those kids we saw on a trip to Bodega Bay,” he recalled.
Beyer, Eikanger’s tutor since 1999, helped him find a publisher once he wrote enough poems and short stories to fill a book.
“We tailor tutoring methods depending on their needs,” said Beyer. “Ike is retired now so he’s enjoying creative writing. That’s his goal.”
Eikanger has used his newfound skills writing poems and short stories, while some learned how to read and write for other reasons.
“They want to vote, they want to have a voice and begin to realize they can make better decisions,” said Laura Seaholm, PSC project manager. “A whole new world opens up to them.”
“This book is a testament to my life and progress,” said Eikanger.
“The title, ‘A Journey from Illiteracy to Poetry’ is what it’s all about.”
Eikanger, who enjoys reading World War II stories, said that he was thrilled when a nurse told him that he inspired her to write poetry.
“If I could reach more people like myself, I’d be happy.”