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November 28, 2000

Give the Gift of Literacy

Local Agency Offers Reading Programs And Hope

by Edmund Tsang

Michael Johnson said the "hurt" from his inability to read was what drove him to drink. "I've always been a slower reader. Very early on kids were always joking about my reading problem, so I didn't want to admit to others that I can't read. In class, when other kids were reading, I'd hold my book, looking at it like I was reading," Johnson, 34, told a Harbinger reporter last week. "As years went by, it got worse. It really hurt bad inside not knowing how to read." Johnson said he turned to drinking as a result.

"I had chances to be a head cook." Johnson described how illiteracy cast obstacles in his life. "I'd tell people that I'm happy being an assistant cook. I knew that head cooks have to write manuals and things."

Even though he graduated from high school -- via "Special Ed" -- Johnson never did learn to read. He is among the 29 percent of the residents of the City of Mobile who have only a Level 1 Literacy. According to the National Institute for Literacy, people in Level I Literacy cannot read a table of employment benefits to determine if they are eligible, locate an intersection from a street map, understand an application form, nor extract information from the newspaper. In Mobile County, 27 percent of the residents have Level 1 Literacy; in the State of Alabama, 25 percent of the population read at Level 1 Literacy.

Through the help of the Water Front Rescue Mission, Johnson said he's "back on track." "I finally admitted that I need help. Keeping it all inside is not going to help me read. I've got to let other people know that I need some help." Johnson explained why he decided to enroll in the literacy program offered by Goodwill Easter Seals of Gulf Coast, and he is now the head cook at the Water Front Rescue Mission.

According to Clyde Roland, program manager at Goodwill Easter Seals, a literacy program was administered in Mobile in the past by the Literacy Council of Mobile, which merged with Goodwill to cut administrative costs to keep the literacy program going. Then last July, Goodwill and Easter Seals merged to offer a host of service programs for adults and children alike, including the literacy program. Roland told The Harbinger that the reading programs include one-to-one as well as small group tutoring, and family literacy programs to help adults to enhance parent-child reading in the home. Roland said one-to-one tutoring can offer the readers a flexible schedule to accommodate "work or whatever is in their lives," as well as the anonymity should one desire. However, small group tutoring (Reading 101) taught by the center's full-time staff offers the opportunity for group dynamics where participants can form bonds to help each other.

Roland said there are various reasons cited by the participants of the literacy program for enrolling. "A lot of them just want to be able to read their bible. Some want to help their kids so the children won't become themselves. Some want to get a job or want a promotion. Some want to get a GED," Roland explained. Most of the subscribers came to the reading programs through "word of mouth," with the rest referred by other area public and private service agencies.

Roland said the literacy program enrolled 373 readers last year and is expected to exceed that number this year, and currently has around 30 volunteer tutors with 23 working directly with students. "We do tutor workshops two to three times a year. We may have five to ten people come to the workshops. Out of that, maybe three to six will volunteer." Roland said the literacy program looks for people with "personal desire" who are will to "make about a year's commitment." Even though the one-to-one tutoring program lasts only six months, Roland said it often takes longer to get started between the tutor and the student. "It would be best if the volunteer can commit one year," Roland said, "but six-month commitment is the minimum." Roland also said volunteer tutors come from "all walks of life."

Michael Johnson has this suggestion to offer to anyone who wants to learn to read: "Don't get upset, take your time. Sometimes the students wanted to learn so bad that they got disgusted and stopped coming, thinking they could never read. It's going to take time; find someone you can trust to work with you." Johnson also has this for the volunteer tutors: "It's one of the greatest thing to have tutors. It's the greatest feeling to teach someone to read." Johnson said he wanted to thank his tutors, Ms. Rosemary, Chara Timmons, and Mr. Roland at Goodwill Easter Seals for helping him learn to read.


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