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Literacy the Gift that Keeps on Giving

Imagine trying to find your way around town without being able to read street signs, buying over-the-counter medications without being able to read the directions, or looking for a job without being able to complete an application. This is the world of the illiterate.

Did you know that 30 million adults in the United States cannot read, write or do basic math above a third-grade level? Here in Monterey County the number of adults lacking basic literacy skills hovers at about 28%. That is a lot of people. Lest you think it is only the immigrant population who are illiterate, 29% of adults living in Appalachia are functionally illiterate.

Why does literacy matter? Because low literacy costs everyone! It costs the U.S. $225 billion annually in workforce non-productivity, loss of tax revenue and crime. In addition, there are another $232 billion in healthcare costs linked to low adult literacy skills. The cost of illiteracy impacts every major social issue. States that raise literacy rates experience a significant decline in incarceration rates. Not surprising when you realize the 75% of state prison inmates have not completed high school or are considered low literate.

It is not that the illiterate are not smart, they have to be smart to navigate a world where everyone else reads and writes. They simply need access to literacy resources. Nationwide, literacy programs suffer from long student wait lists. Learners tell us they want to read and write to prepare for a better job, obtain a GED, read to their child, obtain employment certification or become a U.S. citizen.

Two years ago, I embarked upon one of the most meaningful journeys of my life. I became an adult literacy tutor through the Monterey Country Free Libraries Literacy program. Before being matched with me, my learner spent three years on the county literacy program wait list.

Although the county program is not currently able to accept and train new tutors because of the pandemic they are still providing services. Both tutors and learners have had to adapt the way they deliver and receive services. For example, instead of meeting in person at the library, tutors and learners are meeting by Zoom, FaceTime or What’s Ap.  In addition, Program Manager, Sarah Hoeffel instituted a virtual summer conversation group using Zoom to encourage learners to practice their language skills. Another conversation group is planned for October.  Ms. Hoeffel has also launched a new reader book club via Zoom. Families with children under 10 are receiving free kits so they can practice sharing reading.

I can hardly believe that next month my learner and I will celebrate our two-year anniversary. She has come so far! We meet every Saturday via FaceTime, a tool my learner had never used before. Now, she is a pro! I am continually impressed by her grit, determination and perseverance.

If you are reading this, thank that parent, sibling or teacher who took the time to teach you to read and write. Literacy is the gift that keeps on giving.

©2020 Mary Jeanne Vincent.  All rights reserved.