“There is a short line between the 16 percent of adult Alabamians who can’t read and the 17.5 percent of the population living below the poverty level,” said Beth Wilder, president and executive director of the Literacy Council of Greater Birmingham.
Functional illiteracy, a problem for 92,000 adults in the five-county Birmingham metro area served by the Literacy Council, also has straight-line correlations to a web of social ills from gender abuse, high infant mortality and the spread of preventable infectious diseases to crime and drug abuse. In Alabama, 75 percent of prison inmates and 60 percent of welfare recipients lack basic reading skills.
The Literacy Council teams up with a wide range of groups from homeless shelters to interfaith organizations to provide free tutoring through its Literacy Providers Network. The Council trains tutors for basic literacy as well as for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).
Training and ESOL Services Manager and Hispanic Outreach Coordinator Linda DeRocher said that fluency in another language is not a requirement for becoming an ESL or ESOL tutor. “It’s almost easier if you don’t know the language because there’s no temptation to translate,” she said. “The Shelby County school system has identified 72 different first languages in their student population. The common denominator in ESOL classes is a desire to learn English, whether the student comes from Mexico, China, Vietnam or Yemen. People enrolled in the classes are eager to learn American culture.”
One example of the Literacy Council’s proactive programs to address cultural inconsistencies is the Unidos Leemos program for Hispanic parents and children. Literacy Council volunteers go on site to implement a two-hour program for pre-schoolers, first graders and parents designed to teach the importance of children developing fluent reading skills in their first language. Doing so is proven to make learning a second language easier. “Bedtime stories are not a traditional part of Hispanic culture,” DeRocher explained. “We give them bilingual books, donated by Infinity Insurance, to take home along with materials for a craft project associated with the story.” There is no charge for the program or materials.
Orientation sessions for potential tutors are held monthly, followed by five hours of training. Tutors typically volunteer several mornings each week. Since joining the Literacy Council in March 2011, DeRocher has trained 330 tutors.
Literacy Council Marketing and Development Director Missy Burchart listed three main reasons that adult Alabamians fail to read at functional levels: undiagnosed learning disabilities, family circumstances forcing individuals to drop out of school, and bad choices such as drug use and teenage pregnancy.
One of the Literacy Council’s star students is an example of the second case. Obligated to quit school to help support his family after his father died when he was in eighth grade, “Bill”–his identity was withheld by request to protect his privacy–is a retired transportation engineer who had a successful career as a truck driver despite “my schooling not being what it should have been.” He attends tutoring sessions twice a week at the Literacy Council headquarters on 1st Avenue North and has encouraged others to make the same effort at self-improvement.
“A lot of people stick on pride, but I don’t,” he continued. “This means a lot to me. I need the advancement. I’m not going to give it up. I don’t care what it takes. The first thing I did when I retired was to start back to school.”
“Bill” is not atypical in having held a good steady job in which he advanced for many years while struggling with basic reading skills. “I never had trouble getting a job,” he said. “I learned how to get around by being at work–on time every day–and I taught myself to read a map and fill out an application.”
“Bill” is 82 years old.
His tutor, Adrienne Marshall, obviously proud of her learner, said “’Bill’ intends to be independent forever. He’s energetic, has a positive attitude, and is making good progress changing his life for now and the future.” A business analyst currently between jobs, Marshall cites her own love of reading as impetus toward becoming a tutor. “I’m in a book club and enjoy reading as recreation. I want to help others to enjoy the same.”
Megan Cooper, veteran of a two-decade career in education, signed up as a basic literacy volunteer after moving to Birmingham from Austin, Texas a year ago.
“Everybody here brings something to the table,” she said. “Most of the tutors have no background in education but do have a passion for helping others and opening doors of opportunity. Life experience makes great tutors.”
Cooper, who also volunteers with Better Basics and a middle school library, has worked with about 20 adult learners through the Literacy Council. “Many come in crisis mode or with a need to overcome an obstacle or meet an immediate pressing goal such as getting a commercial drivers license or passing the GED,” she said. “Some simply want to be able to read to grandchildren. One of my learners enjoys having lunch with her Sunday school class and had difficulty reading a menu.”
Cooper describes the atmosphere of the Literacy Council headquarters as “non-threatening, nurturing and welcoming” and credits the staff for making it so. Reducing the stigma associated with adult functional illiteracy has high priority with staff members.
“I’m honestly grateful for what I do,” she continued. “I learn far more than I teach.”
Flexibility is essential for both tutors and learners. Structured on a “drop-in” basis, the program recognizes that adults, unlike children in school, must work around jobs and other responsibilities. Also aware that many of the learners have what Cooper calls “back pocket issues,” the staff coordinates with other community agencies to direct clients to needed resources. Outreach Manager Steve Hannum maintains a list of contacts and utilizes the United Way’s Information and 211 Referral Service. “Between the two of us, we can generally find what we need,” he said.
The Literacy Council partners with Better Basics, the Junior League of Birmingham, and the Children’s Literacy Guild of Alabama to reach out every April to more than 14,000 local children through Birmingham Reads. The program puts volunteer readers–including local media, sports celebrities, and Mayor William Bell–into classrooms to encourage children to become readers. Each child receives a book to take home.
“Think how helpless you would feel if you couldn’t read,” said Burchart. “Learning to read is liberation.”
Literacy Council tutoring in basic literacy and second language skills are free of charge. For more information on upcoming events, or to volunteer or donate, contact the Literacy Council at 205-326-1925or visit online at www.literacy-council.org.