Barbara Bush —  who on Monday turned 90 years old— has advocated for literacy since her tenure as the First Lady when she created the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Adult literacy is the most recent initiative taken up by her foundation.

About 14 percent of the adult population in the United States can’t read, according to the most recent comprehensive study from 2003. In Maine, that report found 7 percent of adults lacked the basic ability to understand information written in paragraph form. Think for a moment about how pervasive and important words are in every decision we make throughout the day. Reading is integral to communicating and engaging in modern society.

What is it like for an adult who is illiterate?

For a worker, it can mean not understanding their benefits or business contract; for a parent: not being able to read their children a bedtime story.

Words, more often than not, are the barrier between the person who can’t read and information about their health care, for example, or a new job they’d like to apply for, according to Mary Lyon, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Bangor.

When it comes to adult literacy, very few people are completely illiterate. Most illiterate adults can read and write simple sentences, but they aren’t comfortable reading a paragraph like you are right now. Organizations like Literacy Volunteers of Bangor is working to help adults change that.

The mission behind Literacy Volunteers of Bangor is to get those adults uncomfortable with their level of literacy, comfortable. This means helping them attain a proficiency that allows them to engage with information that directly affects their lives, Mary Lyon said.

Today, an overwhelming majority of those adults who would be deemed illiterate by state reading standards, populate the service fields, providing for themselves and their families through tenacity and affability.

Even though they may exude a warm, lighthearted exterior, inside, many of these adults experience frustration and isolation. Feelings of worthlessness, self-blame and having been left behind are all common to illiterate adults who come in to the Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, Lyons said.

Today, community volunteers through the Literacy Volunteers of Bangor program —  and Bush herself  —  are working to help lower the adult illiteracy rate, but  the disadvantage really begins in grade school.

64 percent of children under the age of 6 live in a home where their parents haven't graduated from high school

Children learn to read between 5 and 9, Lyons said, and a fourth grader’s reading proficiency can be indicative of whether or not they go to college — or in the worst case scenario, go to jail.

Moving around a lot, having a chaotic home life,  lacking parents  that support education, or living with a learning disability can all hinder a child’s reading abilities.

“A parent’s literacy level is a significant predictor of their child’s future educational success, influencing generations to follow,” Bush said in a statement.

For more information about the Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, or for aid in learning how to read, visit or call 207-947-8451.