Your baby is crying. Her fever is 102. This morning the pediatrician gave you two prescriptions. One bottle says to take the medication every four hours. The other is to be taken twice daily. Your baby needs help now but you have low literacy; you can’t read the directions. You need help. There is a 45 percent chance that you can’t ask your spouse because he or she doesn’t read any better than you. However, help is available from some of your friends and neighbors.
In 1969, Sister Mary Benigna and Agnes Beckwith made an unlikely pair of visionaries. The Catholic sister and the retired Baptist missionary took matters into their own hands and founded the organization that, 40 years later, has become Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, or LVB.
Low literacy was not an acceptable topic of conversation much less an acknowledged problem. One student at a time, they increased literacy. They recruited other volunteers to help provide free lessons to their low-literate or non-English speaking neighbors.
Now it is 2009 and this problem has hardly disappeared. Bangor reflects the rest of the nation with nearly 25 percent of our neighbors reading at the lowest levels of literacy. As a result, LVB has grown to meet the demand. Basic literacy and English language students served by LVB increased from 54 to 237 in the last five years — a growth of more than 400 percent. The age group we serve with the greatest need is between 25 and 44. This is the group that is busy raising families, working to support themselves and even owning businesses.
For a moment, consider the consequences of low literacy. You can’t read that medicine bottle. You can’t fully participate in your children’s lives by reading to them. Maybe you miss parent-teacher conferences to avoid having your secret discovered. You decline a promotion at work because it includes “paper-work.”
Today our programs continue to improve the social and economic standing of our adult students. Improved employability is reflected in less dependence on public assistance programs. That enlightened worker becomes an economic contributor instead of a liability.
The positive changes reach beyond economics. Successful students have received their GED or comparable diploma, passed their citizenship exam, increased their participation in community-based activities, and attained better consumer skills. All of these results inarguably provide for a stronger society.
September is National Literacy Month. As that celebration ends, we ask our neighbors, friends and supporters to commit to creating a more literate, empowered and better-educated community. Turn off the TV. Read an extra book, magazine or newspaper. Visit your local library. Cultivate the love of reading by sharing an extra story with your children each night. Reach out to that friend you think needs help reading by calling LVB.
Do you have some free time? Sign up for tutor training and watch the positive effects of your work last a lifetime. You could be the one who taught someone to read or to speak English. That is an incomparable feeling.
Chuck Veeder is the newly elected president of Literacy Volunteers of Bangor. Mary Marin Lyon is LVB’s executive director. Visit www.lvbangor.org or call 947-8451 for information.