Nonprofit Superhero Series: They say not all heroes wear capes. And from working with so many incredible nonprofit organizations, we can attest to that. We meet people from all different backgrounds working at organizations with diverse missions, but they all have one thing in common — they are passionately dedicated to making the world a better place. Their vision, their compassion, their determination … it all comes together in one powerful package — no cape required.
Today’s Nonprofit Superhero:
When we think of illiteracy, we typically think of adults who fell through the cracks in the education system and struggle every day making their way in the world and, often, depending on others to help them do it.
And, true, that’s one face of illiteracy or low literacy in the United States. But there are others. Immigrants who haven’t learned English yet, for example. English as Second Language students who need to learn to communicate within training and certification programs for certain professions. Workers who need to navigate a challenging digital landscape.
“People usually say it's someone who has an inability to read, in a nutshell, but that’s really not all there is to it,” says Karen Evans, program manager for Reading Connections. “There's so much more. In addition to reading, it’s writing and speaking and listening and communicating in your world, filling out forms at a doctor's office, for example.
“It really gets down to every little aspect of your life,'' Evans says. “Reading a medicine label for your children and for yourself. It’s about your health. It's about your security, your safety. It’s about your empowerment, your ability to speak out and advocate for yourself in the world. It touches every facet of our lives.”
The largest adult literacy organization in North Carolina, Reading Connections serves Guilford County where, according to the organization, 1 in 5 people struggles with basic literacy skills. That means more than 80,000 adults live without access to information to ensure health, financial stability and security for themselves and their families.
“Not only does low literacy limit their potential, it limits the potential of their children for years to come,” it says.
Reading Connections’ mission is to “transform our community by improving literacy and promoting educational equity for people of all ages, empowering them to navigate changes in an increasingly complex world.”
The 31-year-old organization’s vision, simply, is to eradicate illiteracy. To get there, it offers Adult Basic Education, English as a Second Language and Family Literacy programs.
What does success look like for Reading Connections? It’s in the numbers:
- 934 adult students in Reading Connections’ service area benefited from the organization's program in 2020.
- 251 volunteer tutors worked with Reading Connections student populations in one-on-one sessions or in small class settings.
- 98 percent of Reading Connections students achieved one personal goal in a year, including getting a GED, getting a job, receiving citizenship, being placed in a job-training program or being able to read to their children.
- 62 percent of full-time Reading Connections students advanced at least one literacy level. This is equal to two-three grade levels.
- Two students got jobs.
- Six students worked with career coaches on resume writing, interviewing skills, job applications and more.
- 86 families with 179 children attended at least one of Reading Connections’ three Family Literacy sites.
- 89 percent of parents in Reading Connections’ Family Literacy Program reported reading more to their children.
Illiteracy isn’t just about individuals learning to read and write in their everyday lives. It affects the workforce, as well, which in turn affects society in general, according to Reading Connections.
“Low literacy costs the United States $225 billion in non-productivity in the workforce, crime and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment,” the organization says.
A NEW KIND OF LITERACY
Along with general reading, writing and communicating in the workplace, workforce development more and more must focus on digital literacy, as well, Evans says. She mentions a 2020 report that shows 8 out of 10 middle-skills jobs require digital literacy.
“If you have someone who cannot read and is at low level of literacy, then that's going to translate into digital illiteracy as well,” she says. “But then there's a portion of the population who is literate as far as reading and filling out the forms and understanding, but then you get to that digital divide and that becomes an issue. Then that presents hurdles, like what do you do now that your job has to be conducted on a tablet or using an app? How do you deliver that package? How do you use that scanner?
Digital literacy is an issue even before people get jobs, Evans says. Training and certification courses often have an online component and even basic research and coursework involves use of a computer. Reading Connections’ workforce development program focuses heavily on digital literacy, teaching students how to use email, PowerPoint, Google docs, etc., even issues around identity theft and how to suss out scams online — proficiencies that serve workers well both at entry-level jobs and as they progress up the workforce ladder, potentially into leadership.
“It really affects the economy when workers cannot rise to the challenge and meet the needs that the workforce has,” Evans says.
HURDLES TO LEARNING
Low literacy is an issue in communities all across the country — but why? Poverty is a key factor. Reading Connections says that at least 43 percent of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty. It’s one of the main reasons why children drop out of school. Poverty also causes barriers to technology and digital literacy.
But it goes deeper, as well, Evan says.
“It's a cycle you get stuck in with low income,” she says. “You have a little income, you have to get a low-paying job. You have to work overtime a lot of time. You don't have a lot of time on your hands to do anything else to further yourself. You're so focused on putting food on the table, where is the time to study? Those are some of the primary barriers that our students face.”
For its commitment to fighting illiteracy in its service area, Reading Connections received a Center of Excellence Award from the North Carolina community college system, which asked the organization to train community colleges on how to build workforce development.
“It was a big project and very humbling for us,” Evans says, “We are the largest literacy agency in the state of North Carolina, but compared to community colleges, the funding that they get, we're quite small. So we were like the little engine that could, or the mighty mouse or whatnot, training other community colleges on how to build training programs for students.”
Success for Reading Connections, ultimately, is to eradicate illiteracy in the area it serves. But of course there are steps along the way. Crafting programs around student needs is critical, Evans says, and doable given that Reading Connections is a small, nimble literacy agency.
“We can assess student needs and build a program around that,” Evans says. “We don’t build a program and then ask students to come. Success means being aware of what our students’ and student populations' goals are and building something for that particular population — and that program being successful for many reasons but primarily because we noticed that’s what you wanted to do so we built that for you.”
Evans is quick to describe illiteracy in the United States as nothing short of a crisis. It affects society in terms of the quality of the workforce, but also on a personal level that affects self-esteem and the desire and ability to create a better life for oneself and family.
It’s a crisis that ripples from generation to generation. In addition to being the program manager, Evans teaches as well. In the family literacy program, she sees the profound and lasting effect low literacy can have.
“I know the importance of teaching parents to read because the facts show that parents who are struggling with literacy are not able to fully support their children,” Evans says, “And then it becomes a cyclical problem, and parents want to be able to help their children with their schoolwork and to be successful so that they can grow up into successful adults.
“But they need that for themselves first,” she says. “It's super important. That's why I do this work.”
Find out more at readingconnections.org
To meet Karen and learn about how Reading Connections found free and premium CharityHowTo resources that help it move its mission forward, go here.