MILFORD, Maine — Like most children of military families, Steve Scalese moved around a lot in his early years, never staying in one place for too long.
As exciting as parts of his childhood were, Scalese, now 37 and living in Milford, admits his education slipped through the cracks. When he graduated from high school, he couldn’t read past a fifth-grade level.
Unable to find work that paid more than minimum wage, Scalese for years worked multiple jobs and lived on a few hours’ sleep each night.
Still, it wasn’t until his first child was born that Scalese got serious about improving his reading skills.
“Not being able to read to my son, that was a wake-up call,” he said recently from his home. “I didn’t want to see my kids struggle the way I did.”
In 2003, at the suggestion of an employer, Scalese called Literacy Volunteers of Bangor to see about connecting with a tutor. Six years later, he still meets once a week with a volunteer and has improved his reading level exponentially. With those improved skills, Scalese said he has discovered a newfound confidence and im-proved self-esteem that have spilled into all aspects of his life.
“The only thing it cost me was my time,” he said.
Scalese is one of the many success stories of Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, a nonprofit program that matches individuals or families in Greater Bangor with volunteers to improve their reading skills.
“Each person that finds us is a little different,” said Mary Lyon, the organization’s executive director. “Usually, what prompts them to act is some type of obstacle or life-changing event. For Steve, it was as simple as wanting to read to his child.”
Literacy Volunteers of Bangor has the distinction of being the first regional affiliate to branch off from the national organization Literacy Volunteers of America. The Bangor program celebrated its 40th anniversary with an event last week and several individuals — Scalese included — were honored for their commitment.
“I knew it was coming,” he said of his award. “But it was nice to be recognized.”
Gov. John Baldacci also attended the event and even shared his own personal connection to Literacy Volunteers of Bangor as a way of highlighting the prevalence of adults who don’t read at the level they should.
Several years ago, when Baldacci was Maine’s 2nd District representative, one of his drivers told the congressman that he struggled to read. Baldacci and others encouraged the man to seek help.
“I have seen personally the difference it makes for adults who have been helped by Literacy Volunteers of Bangor,” the governor said last week. “I know that literacy is an essential life skill that impacts our state’s economic development potential and well-being.”
As proud as she is of the 40th anniversary, Lyon said the bigger story is the organization’s growth in recent years. When she joined Literacy Volunteers five years ago, there were 20 adults matched up with tutors. This year, the number is nearing 200.
According to a recent national assessment of adult literacy, 22 percent of adults in Maine function at the lowest level of literacy and 43 percent of those adults live in poverty.
Lyon said the need always has been there but it continues to grow, particularly among those who are learning English as a second language. Urban communities such as Portland and Lewiston have seen a tremendous influx of immigrants in recent years and many need literacy services.
“Bangor is likely to be the next area to see that influx,” Lyon said.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as open to receiving help as Scalese. That’s why he’s so eager to share his own story.
“My way of giving back is to talk about it,” he said. “Some don’t want to take that first step, but all I can say is, they are missing out on life.”
Scalese works as a custodian and part-time mail carrier for the Milford post office and the Bradley post office. It’s not a perfect job, he said, but he no longer has to work seven days a week.
More important, he can support his wife, Shannon, his son, Zakery, now 7, and the newest addition to the Scalese family, Katie, who was born early last week. With his continually improving reading skills, Scalese might someday find another job that pays even better. What he cares most about, though, is ensuring that his chil-dren don’t struggle the way he did.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he said. “It would have been more embarrassing to just do nothing.”
Anyone wishing to volunteer or get more information can visit the Web site www.lvbangor.org or call 947-8451.