It was during a battle with stage three breast cancer that Kris Drach discovered how she wanted to spend her retirement, if she survived.
Drach, who was a colonel in the U.S. Army stationed in Washington, D.C., in 1999 when she received her cancer diagnosis, was too sick to work during 18 months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but wanted to spend her time doing “something worthwhile,” she said.
So Drach visited the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and became an English as a Second Language tutor, where she taught a Muslim woman whose family moved to the United States from Egypt to seek treatment at a Shriners hospital for the woman’s daughter, who had been born without a leg.
“A warm, loving, funny woman. I fell in love with her,” Drach said last month, as she accepted the 2017 Outstanding Tutor of the Year award from the Tutors of Literacy in the Commonwealth at the annual Pennsylvania Association for Adult Continuing Education conference at Penn State University. “Over the next three years, we conquered English, grocery stores, restaurants, libraries, school letters from teachers and doctor office conversations, and we found a used computer and we mastered English on the internet. I was smitten with this work.”
Drach did, indeed, survive her bout with cancer, and five years ago, the now-Greene County resident volunteered with the Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a partner of Intermediate Unit 1.
She serves as the literacy council’s director of programs, president of the board of directors, tutor trainer, and volunteer instructor, teaching small group ESL classes and working one-on-one with a 35-year-old student from Vietnam. During her five years serving with the literacy council, Drach, 64, has volunteered more than 6,000 hours.
“She is amazing. She spends more than 40 or 50 hours a week at the literacy council doing everything,” said Rachel Zilkosky, adult education coordinator for IU1, who nominated Drach for the award. “One of the reasons I nominated her is her commitment to her students. She’s the true picture of what a volunteer is. She puts her life into it.”
The literacy council, which has partnered with the IU1 adult education program for three years, serves Washington, Greene and Fayette counties and offers free ESL classes, adult basic education and General Education Development tutoring, and the Baby Book program, which provides women in the community with tote bags filled with board books, community library listings and literature outlining the importance of reading to babies from birth.
Drach acknowledges the importance of all of the programs the literacy council offers, but the ESL program is her passion.
“Some of the most depressed people I’ve ever known are some of my women students, who often are here because their husbands have jobs here,” said Drach, a self-described “military brat” who was born in Japan, was raised, for the most part, in upstate New York, and graduated from the University of Kansas. “They’re away from their mothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, they’re raising children that their families don’t know, they have no language skills, they don’t have money and they don’t drive a car. To watch a human being seem so wrecked is hard. Minority women are the most vulnerable people in our society. They’re very isolated.”
After Drach was granted a medical retirement from the Army in 2002, she bought a farm in Nineveh, Greene County, and restored the 1888 Victorian home on the property. She also met her husband, Paul Kreuzer, who owned the adjacent farm.
At the same time, she started a consulting firm and volunteered with other nonprofit organizations, including Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
After commuting weekly from her Nineveh home to Washington, D.C., for five years, Drach returned permanently to Greene County and renewed her association with a literacy council. She visited the Literacy Council of Southwestern PA and expressed interest in tutoring an ESL student.
“The director at the time said, ‘You can have a student if you start a program,” recalled Drach. “I said no, I’ve been in charge of things all my life, I don’t want to. But they didn’t have a program, so I said I’d start it.”
The ESL program that Drach started in 2011 has grown from four students to 160 students representing 43 countries, and an additional 50 students are enrolled in the GED program. Today, the literacy council has more than 50 tutors, including many retired teachers, Drach said. Of those, all but two have college degrees, and about 35 percent of the tutors have advanced degrees.
“Nobody was serving the ESL need. It was an amazingly huge unmet need and an incredibly underserved population,” said Drach.
Kim Roush, executive director of Tutors of Literacy in the Commonwealth, said Drach’s dedication to adult learners is remarkable.
“She is very determined to help immigrants and to help people be the best they can be. She has mastered the art of being a teacher,” said Roush. “She’s truly remarkable in all that she’s done for adult learners in all the different volunteer capacities she has filled, and she has demonstrated a true passion for assisting adult learners and helping others to learn. Her devotion to the field and to these adult learners is just so inspiring and motivating.”
Today, Drach works with Ha Nguyen Myers, who emigrated to Washington County from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 2014, after she married Bentleyville resident Stephen Myers.
“Watching Ha is like watching a flower bloom,” said Drach. “Learning to communicate through the ESL classes is empowering. These are women whose education levels often are much higher than their ability to actualize them. I’m just trying to do this for humanity. Every single one of the people who walks through this door comes here with gratitude and discipline and values and a desire to get ahead. They deserve the opportunity to do that.”
Those interested in volunteering for the Literacy Council of Southwestern PA, or who have questions about the programs, can contact the literacy council at 724-228-6188, or visit the website at www.lcswpa.org.