Leader Blues

Friday, January 16, 2009

TOP STORY > >Lonoke Literacy Council volunteers pass the gift of reading to others

Leader staff writer

The Literacy Council of Lonoke County is in the business of crime prevention. But if you ask any of the volunteer tutors why they love their work, they more likely will talk about the joy that comes with teaching someone how to read, seeing a life transformed, and getting to be part of that.

Few individuals who canít read become criminals, but if a community is looking for ways to reduce crime, improving the literacy rate is a good proactive measure. If one canít read, speak or write English proficiently, one is more likely to lead a life of poverty, poor health and desperation Ė or even crime. Most individuals who do jail time Ė 7 out of 10 Ė have poor reading skills or were high school dropouts.

Most folks who canít read simply struggle along for years hiding the problem as best they can, sometimes quite well, from employers, friends, and family. Most are employed though living below the poverty line. Most put off getting help with reading until their forties.

The Literacy Council takes all comers, regardless of age, disability, or proficiency in speaking English. The service and study materials are free. All that is required is a desire to learn. In a year of tutored studying, a per son who does not have a learning disability can progress from not even knowing the alphabet to a sixth-grade reading level. It may take a year or more of additional study to become a good enough reader to pass a written driverís test, fill out a job application, and hold down a decent job.

Since opening its doors in 1986, the Literacy Council has helped students of all ages, walks of life, educational attainment, and nationalities. They have ranged in age from teens to eighties. Some are graduates of local high schools, others dropped out when still children.

One man who sought tutoring in his fifties had never been to school a day in his life, didnít even know the ABCs, having worked the fields from childhood. After two months of hard studying, the joyous day came that he could write his name.

ďHe broke down and cried,Ē Roy Henderson, the councilís director, recounted in a recent interview.

One lady came to the council at age 85, at the encouragement of her children. Sheíd been consigned to a life of illiteracy when her father removed her from school at age 10 and married her off to an uncle to be his house servant and bear his children.

She managed to earn a seventh-grade diploma before Alzheimerís closed in on her.

Some students are single moms on welfare, wanting to get the skills to make them employable. Others with limited reading skills do work but want a better job and higher wages. One fellow working at the Remington plant managed to conceal his reading deficit long enough to improve his skills and land a promotion.

The councilís tutors have assisted many immigrants including employees of local Chinese and Vietnamese eateries and a Russian lawyer who needed to read English well enough to take the bar exam. He now practices law in Arkansas. Hispanic workers at the Lonoke fisheries and Cabot orchards, as well as in construction and farming, are some of the most motivated students the council gets.

Generally literate in Spanish, they are quick learners. Sometimes an entire family comes for lessons. As Henderson puts it, immigrants understand, perhaps more clearly than do the native-born, ďIf you canít read and speak English, then you canít get by in the good olí U.S.A.Ē

Last year, one of the councilís star students, Randy Moore, became a high-profile example of how illiteracy can lead to horrifically bad choices and how learning to read is a redemptive act.

The Arkansas Bar Association honored Moore as the stateís literacy student of 2008. The tragedy is that Moore didnít enroll in the reading program until after he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for robbing a bank.

Moore was graduated from an Arkansas public high school, having been promoted year after year, unable to read, because of his athletic talents. He finished school with diploma in hand, but was incapable of filling out a job application.

A few years later, unemployed, married and with a baby on the way, he wrongly concluded that crime and quick cash were the easy answer. He hopes to be paroled next year.

Henderson wishes more folks would see the direct connection between social problems like poverty, crime and broken homes and the ability to read.

More than 20 percent of adults in Arkansas read at or below a fifth-grade level. That is far below the skill level needed to earn a living wage, according to the Arkansas Literacy Council. Most will live in dire poverty, earning an average monthly income of $425. No wonder that for a few, crime eventually seems like a good career move.

ďIf people would ever stop to look at that, they would be amazed, and add another 5 to 6 percent who cannot read or speak English, that is a whole lot of people,Ē he said. He fears that if the economy worsens and jobs are cut, anyone with poor reading skills will be the first to be left out in the cold.

That may mean more folks will be knocking at the councilís door. The councilís 21 volunteer tutors are not nearly enough, Henderson says, already busy with 100 students.

To be a tutor, one must be a high school graduate, have an hour each week to give, and have a desire to help someone learn to read.