Every day it is apparent that the economic and social strength of our area is linked to literacy. We share information, advocate for each other and support each other because we can communicate by reading, writing and speaking.
Our community is a vibrant one because literacy enables us to connect to one another.
Imagine if you could not interact at this level. Imagine if you could not read a bus schedule, or a doctor's instructions. Imagine if you could not help your child with their homework, or even speak English well enough to talk to their teacher.
Unfortunately we have neighbors for whom this is a daily reality. By 2009 estimates, about 10 percent of Whatcom County adults lacked basic prose literacy. That means more than 20,000 adults in our community could not read this article.
The damages we see from illiteracy are enormous. Nationally, low literacy costs $73 million a year in direct health care expenses; three out of four food-stamp recipients perform at the lowest literacy levels. Even illiteracy and crime are closely related: 70 percent of inmates cannot read above a fourth-grade level.
While the impacts of illiteracy run deep, this is one problem that has a solution: education. People can be taught how to read and write English, do math and use a computer. Even adults who have had minimal schooling can master these skills. Since its founding in 1978, the Whatcom Literacy Council has addressed these problems by providing free tutoring, classes and learning resources for adults who want to improve their basic literacy skills. Our approach is flexible and customized, catering to a group primarily made up of working people who have families, many who find it challenging to be in an average classroom during the day.
When people work with the Literacy Council they identify goals they wish to work towards, and our staff and trained volunteers focus on those goals when they create a learning plan. Many goals are related to employment, because the correlation between improved literacy and increased earning potential is high. Other goals include reading to their children, or getting a drivers' license. Many hope to pass the high school equivalency exam, or get their citizenship.
Because illiteracy is a problem that affects our entire community, the Whatcom Literacy Council partners closely with other area adult basic education providers, including Whatcom Community College, Goodwill, the Whatcom County Library System, the Bellingham Public Library, and Bellingham Technical College.
Resources are often shared, and staff communicate and collaborate regarding classes and curriculum. An example of this partnership is highlighted by the recent move of Whatcom Literacy Council's main office to Bellingham Technical College, where we now rent a suite of offices in Building A. We are able to take advantage of resources such as classrooms and computers when they are not in use by the college, serving our learners better.
The Whatcom Literacy Council also partners with many local businesses. Companies such as LOGOS Bible Software and Alcoa often provide sponsorships and encourage their employees to support us because their money stays right here in Whatcom County.
One way that people help is by volunteering. The Whatcom Literacy Council trains and works with more than 60 volunteers each year, and these people are critical to the success of the organization. All volunteer tutors receive 8 hours of proliteracy training, are paired with learners who they are most likely to be compatible with, and are given ongoing support from staff.
It might surprise people that the need for literacy tutoring is so great. Demand for our services has grown steadily during the past 10 years, and the Whatcom Literacy Council typically has a waiting list of more than 20 learners waiting for tutors.
On Sept. 18 we will be having an open house from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Bellingham Public Library where we invite you to come learn more about how you can become a Whatcom Literacy Council volunteer. Change a life -- become a tutor!
Adults with improved literacy skills earn more money, raise healthy families, vote and give back to their communities in countless ways. Our community is a healthier one when a greater number of adults achieve the self sufficiency that better literacy skills support.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Katherine Freimund is executive director and Kate Kershner is a board member of the Whatcom Literacy Council. For more information, go online to whatcomliteracy.org.