Literacy is a matter of life and death, happiness or penury


I used to get my elbows up into many literacy projects as an English and writing faculty member at community colleges, universities, prison school programs and writing/journalism workshops for people who are exploited because of their status as low income or as former felons, and those homeless citizens as well as adults living with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Events like “Banned Books Month” (October) or National Poetry Month (April) I worked hard to promote/support. Big journalism organizations like Project Censored and groups like Reporters without Borders are still in my blood.

I am now working again in a small rural community dotted with small towns. I am not only supporting folks with job development and on-the-job training and coaching, but I am helping two Lincoln County citizens with reading literacy.

In my situation with Shangri-La, these two are adult men in their 30s who are seeking reading literacy programs.

It may come as a surprise to citizens, lawmakers and politicians alike, but Lincoln County does not have a literacy center. There is no one-stop place for people who need literacy tutoring, whether they are functionally illiterate in their English skills as a U.S.-born citizen, or those who are English as a second/third language learners.

I’m working with a Salem group, Mid-Valley Literacy Center (founded in 2009). Vivian Ang is my contact who is helping train Newport and Toledo-based citizens to help tutor my two clients. This is not an easy task, and Vivian, with more than 20 years of tutoring including at Chemeketa Community College, says it’s hit or miss.

“I do not have any experience with assisting an adult with a learning disability (developmental disability) to learn how to read,” she has repeated to me several times.

An adult who drives a car, works at a factory, runs a large piece of construction equipment, lives on his own and presents as a “regular sort of guy” can be in one of the most dire of circumstances — functional and complete illiteracy.

Wanting to learn how to read when you are in your 30s takes guts. There are stigmas for someone who can’t read an insurance form or simple job application.

The need is high in Lincoln County for adults like this client of mine — born in Newport and educated in Newport’s K-12 system, including special education classes — to learn how to read. But we have many from Mexico, Guatemala and other countries in our communities where learning how to read and speak English is more than just a step toward better pay.

Vivian tells me a story about an Oregon woman, from Mexico, illiterate in English, who had a sick daughter who needed medication to improve. The prescription stated, “Take this medication once a day.” In Spanish, once is the word for the number 11, so, tragically, the mother followed the prescription contextualized in her Spanish reading abilities. At 11 times a day, after a few days, the medication killed her two-year-old daughter.

Navigating housing, employment, the legal system, utility companies, landlords, cultural activities, and representative politics are basically off limits to a person who can’t read or write. The amount of exploitation, fines, fees, garnishments, late payments and other penalties is a regular occurrence for people who can’t read and write.

According to the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy (founded 1991), low literacy in the USA costs us as a society $2.2 trillion a year. According to U.S. Department of Education, more than half of U.S. adults aged 16 to 74 years old (54 percent or 130 million people) lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.

For my many clients across the board, lack of reading, low reading levels and functional illiteracy can be linked to poorer health, low levels of civic engagement and low earnings in the labor market. On average, more than 70 percent of people following the seventh grade reading level for instructions on how to install an infant car seat fail to follow the proper steps.

I am enlisting tutors for my two clients. I have a librarian and a library technician on board. Three retired women living in Toledo and Newport, too. One of my client’s workplaces is stepping up and paying the nonprofit Vivian runs for the materials and training. That general manager is also providing a private space with internet access to his worker (I’ll call him Samuel) who is illiterate.

He tells me, “I wish I had 22 Samuel’s working for me. He’s an incredible worker, reliable, goes the extra mile.”

Paul Haeder is a Shangri-La employment counselor in Newport. He can be reached at 541-265-4015 ext. 308, or [email protected]

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