It is amazing how we can go through life unaware of the challenges that some folks face daily. It is not until we experience them first-hand or through the people we encounter, that the blinders start to come off.
Take reading, for instance. I read practically non-stop in any given day starting with the weather forecast on my phone, the street and road signs on my way to work, 140-character Twitter posts, work emails, newspapers, online articles, magazines and books.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg of what many of us read daily. Think about ordering food from a menu at lunch, reading what’s on sale at the grocery store, or being able to decipher the right dose of cold medicine.
Those of us with aging eyes know how difficult it can be to read the tiny print on those medicine bottles. But we can put on reading glasses that turn those vague squiggles into readable words.
For individuals who are functionally illiterate, “they don’t have the glasses to put on that magically enable them to be able to read,” said Rita Hewitt, community relations director for the York County Literacy Council.
There is a stigma to not being able to read, Hewitt said, and folks who can’t read often hide it, finding ways to adapt — for example, knowing what things are along the road when they are going somewhere. Encountering a detour could be a real challenge.
Some students have shared that when they’ve ordered lunch at a place such as McDonald’s, they ended up with something they didn’t even want, because they didn’t want others to realize they couldn’t read the menu board.
There are 40,000 people in York County with low literacy skills, and there is not just one reason why.
Some have learning disabilities that were not addressed. Others come from low-income families and dropped out of school early to help make ends meet. Some are high school graduates who somehow slipped through the cracks, and the reasons continue.
We also have an incredibly rich environment of immigrants from 60 different countries living here in York County. They come from all over the globe, including Russia, Portugal, Albania, Thailand and Bulgaria.
“Many of them have overcome tremendous hurdles to get here,” Hewitt said. “They want to make something happen for themselves and their families. Education has a wide-spread effect. It improves families, their resources and their understanding of how to access resources.”
Being able to read makes a difference in what kind of job one can secure, she added, describing a direct correlation between low literacy and low paycheck. Illiteracy also has a broader financial impact on all of us when it stands in the way of a family being able to support itself.
Last January, the York County Community Foundation awarded a $6,325 grant to York County Libraries and the York County Literacy Council that enabled the two organizations to merge their collections, enabling easy access to literacy teaching materials and English as a Second Language (ESL) resources countywide.
“York Reads!” was born, a joint initiative to promote literacy for all in York County. Recruitment efforts for volunteer adult tutors were expanded into libraries. After all, who better to teach than those who love to read?
The York County Literacy Council has an ongoing need for tutors as they always have a waiting list of students who want to learn.
“They are motivated,” Hewitt said. “They see it for themselves where they need to make an improvement.”
The recent award of a $15,000 grant from the American Library Association’s “The American Dream Starts @ your library” literacy initiative is providing the funding needed to grow the “York Reads!” program. The collection of teaching and ESL materials will expand greatly this year, and the joint effort to find tutors to match to students is paramount.
Hewitt said she often hears that people think they can’t be tutors because they are not teachers or they don’t know a foreign language. But the literacy council provides ongoing training and support for tutors.
“If you love reading, are patient and understanding, and have a willingness to help, you can empower somebody to change their life,” Hewitt said.
The York County Literacy Council is conducting two tutor training sessions in March. If you are interested in becoming a tutor, call Tonya Pyles or Rita Hewitt at the York County Literacy Council at 717-845-8719 or email Hewitt at firstname.lastname@example.org.