Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

TOP STORY >> Literacy program is volunteer driven

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to volunteer for a cause that benefits your community, you might consider becoming a literacy tutor.

For Claire Rogers, who became executive director of the Lonoke County Literacy Council last July after only five months as a volunteer, the rewards are obvious. She hopes that others will be energized to get involved in helping increase literacy in their communities.

“One in five Arkansans don’t read at the level needed to function in society,” Rogers said, which means not having the reading skills to comprehend a newspaper article, an ingredients list on a food or drug product, a map or business contract.

With tutoring, there is the tangible satisfaction of knowing you have helped another person in a life-changing way, Rogers said.

Like the woman recently who improved her literacy skills so that she was able to fill out a job application and be hired, just as she was laid off from another job. And the man who was then able to pass a driver’s test and obtain a commercial driver’s license.

Literacy makes a difference for communities too. Individuals with poor reading and writing skills have difficulty finding work, keeping a good job or earning a promotion. They will have less money to contribute to the local economy and be less inclined to shop even if they have money to spend.

Poverty and crime are strongly linked to poor literacy. Adults who have difficulty reading and writing are likely to pass the problem on to their children.

“If we help these people now, we’ll reap the benefits later,” Rogers said.

Rogers became a volunteer tutor with the Lonoke Literacy Council after retiring a year ago from a career with the Family Readiness Center at Little Rock Air Force Base.

It seemed like a good fit, given the enjoyment she derives from helping others as well as an affinity for grammar, reading and writing. She liked her new-found avocation so much that when Roy Henderson announced his retirement as the council’s director, she decided to take her involvement a step further and apply for the job.

She has her sights set on increasing the number of individuals helped by the council; that includes those who are American born as well as the growing population of individuals for whom English is a second language.

Rogers wants to spread the word that more literacy tutors are needed to meet the need in Lonoke County. Currently, the council has 40 students and 12 tutors.

She’d like to bring the number of tutors up to 20 so that she can increase outreach to the fisheries. So far, local businesses – restaurants and hotels in particular – “have been really great about sending employees” to tutoring, Rogers said.

To be a tutor requires a weekly time commitment of two to three hours. One does not need to speak the language of ESL students in order to help them learn to read.

To keep its services going, the council depends largely on state funding, but the organization relies heavily on sales from its bookstore, the Book Nook, to pay for study materials. The cost is $110 for one year per student, which is about how long it takes to attain basic proficiency. So that no one is denied assistance because of financial difficulty, Rogers said, “I want everything to be free.”

The Book Nook is accepting donated books again but since space is limited, the store does not accept what does not sell well – hardcover books without jackets, textbooks, encyclopedias or magazines.

It’s hard to get a firm count on just how many people in Lonoke County don’t read well enough to function effectively in daily life, but it could be a substantial number.

According to 2003 U.S. Census data, about 3 percent of the county’s 64,000 residents are Hispanic and therefore may be foreign born, 12 percent live at or below the poverty level and 15 percent do not have a high school diploma, not that that is any guarantee that a person is a proficient reader. A number of those who come to the Lonoke Literacy Council for help are high school graduates.

In Arkansas, 491,000 people age 25 or older do not have a high school diploma; that is almost 25 percent. Almost 10 percent of Arkansans over age 25 have less than an eighth-grade education.

Since last October, when Rogers spoke to the Lonoke Chamber of Commerce about literacy services, the number of ESL students tutored by Lonoke County volunteers have tripled.

“Oh, my goodness, it has just mushroomed from there,” Rogers said. “Word of mouth is just wonderful.” Soon after, arrangements were made for a tutor to hold ESL classes for Hispanic housekeepers at the Holiday Inn in the evenings. In no time, students were asking if family members could join in.

WANT TO BE A LITERACY TUTOR?

Lonoke County

Literacy Council of Lonoke County:
203 Court St. in Lonoke or
114 N. First St. in Cabot
Call Claire Rogers at 501-676-7478 or e-mail her at lonokeliteracy@sbcglobal.net.

Pulaski County

Literacy Action of Central Arkansas:
100 Rock St., Suite 403 in
Little Rock
Call Clif Ford at 501-372-7323 or e-mail him at cford@cals.org.

Pulaski County Learning Center Inc.:
1900 N. Pine in North Little Rock
Call Tara Rice at 501-753-5858 or e-mail her at nlrlearn@aol.com.

White County

Literacy County of White County:
109 E. Center
Searcy, Ark. 72143
Call Ann Nieto at 501-278-5500 or e-mail: acvneato@sbcglobal.net.