The Benefits of Literacy

Posted June 16, 2009, at 6:20 p.m.

Words — from traffic signs to job applications to this newspaper — are such a part of everyday life that most of us take reading for granted. Yet, nearly a quarter of the area’s residents have low literacy rates, which often means they are underemployed and, too often, in jail.

Literacy Volunteers, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary in Bangor, works to change that.

According to a recent national assessment of adult literacy, 22 percent of adults in Maine — nearly 217,000 of the state’s resident — function at the lowest level of literacy and 43 percent of those adults live in poverty. More than 60 percent of all state and federal jail inmates have low literacy rates.

Lack of fluency in reading and writing doesn’t affect just individuals and their families. Low literacy costs the United States more than $225 billion a year in lost productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment, according to ProLiteracy, another national group working to improve literacy. Low health literacy costs up to $238 billion each year in the U.S. — a substantial portion of annual personal health care spending that does not improve health outcomes.

Steve Scalese of Milford personified some of these problems. 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, Mr. Scalese for years worked multiple jobs and lived on a few hours’ sleep each night.

After his son Zakery was born, he knew he had to change this situation. “Not being able to read to my son, that was a wake-up call,” he said recently. “I didn’t want to see my kids struggle the way I did.”

In 2003, at the suggestion of an employer, Mr. Scalese called Literacy Volunteers of Bangor. 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, including more stable employment and an offer to become a deacon at his church.

Mr. Scalese was recognized for his accomplishments at the Literacy Volunteers of Bangor 40th anniversary dinner earlier this month. The Bangor chapter was the first affiliate, formed a year after the flagship group in Syracuse, N.Y.

“The only thing it cost me was my time,” Mr. Scalese said. That is all it costs the many volunteers who have made the program a success, serving over 200 Bangor area residents this year. The benefits are priceless.

To get more information about volunteering or getting help with literacy, visit the Web site www.lvbangor.org or call 947-8451.

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