Roseville’s adult literacy program helps 84-year-old learn to read

Var motivated to learn so he can read Bible stories
By: Sena Christain
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For more information on the Roseville libraries’ adult literacy program, visit

After a lifetime of having the messages in birthday cards read to him, Roseville resident John Var veered from the norm on his 84th birthday last August when he told his granddaughter he no longer needed her assistance.

“I fired her,” Var said, of granddaughter Kimberly Monnot.

But that was fine with Monnot, as it indicated her grandfather was finally able to read most of the messages on his own. Only a couple years before, Var decided he wanted to give reading a shot and he signed up for the Roseville public libraries’ adult literacy program.

The free program is open to Roseville residents at least 16 years old and not enrolled in high school, who seek the services in English (participants must also do the intake interview in English). The program started in 2009 thanks to a bequest by long-time Roseville resident Virgil Harrington and is funded by the California Library Literacy Services.

Throughout California, about 10,000 trained volunteers provide tutoring to more than 22,000 adults in some 900 libraries, according to Acting State Librarian Gerald Maginnity. The majority of these aspiring readers are between the ages of 20 and 49.

There are currently 15 students in the city of Roseville program, and coordinators Penny Hineline and Laura Mikelbank are seeking to enroll more participants. Each student receives individualized tutoring, but generally undergoes one-on-one tutoring with a trained volunteer for about three hours a week.

Some of the participants are Sierra College students who graduated high school but at a remedial-reading level; others need extra help preparing for a military test or college-entrance exam.

“We get people of all kinds,” Hineline said. “People who want to help children with their homework, people who never get the comprehension down, a couple of people who never learned to read.”

Three years ago, Var went to the Downtown Roseville Library and told the woman behind the counter he couldn’t read very well. She referred him to the literacy program.

Growing up in New York, Var had been told by his doctor at a young age that he would never be able to read. But Var excelled at building things, so he took the attitude that he could get by without this skill. And he largely did.

He’s been living on his own since he turned 17 years old, and he retired two decades ago after a long career as a carpenter, mainly in San Francisco. He and his wife, Ellie, moved to Roseville about 16 years ago.

Var would go above and beyond at his job, he said, to compensate for the aspects of the work he couldn’t do because he couldn’t read. Ellie didn’t even realize Var couldn’t read before they were married because when they went out on dates, for instance, he would just tell the waiter he’d have whatever she had chosen off the menu. Once married, Ellie handled her household’s bookkeeping.

“He was able to support four kids and a wife because of a God-given gift of the trades,” she said.

But Var’s love of stories from the Bible inspired him to enroll in the literacy program so he could read these on his own. He has since found several other reasons to remain motivated.

“I like the library because we are getting knowledge here,” Var said.

Var’s tutor, Hineline, started him off with short reading books at the first- and second-grade reading level; he has since advanced to the fifth-grade level. Hineline credits Var’s determination and the encouragement of his family with getting him to the place he is today.

“It’s very important for family support and his family obviously supports John and it’s wonderful,” Hineline said.