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The Power of Literacy

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I am a StoryCorps sap – one of those who finds myself commuting to work on many Friday mornings choked up and teary-eyed after the “Oh it comes” little medley  followed by those heartstring-tugging tales.  With mixed anticipation and anxiety I brace myself for a story that will undoubtedly break my heart or make me smile and always gives pause for reflection. 

For those who are not NPR addicts, StoryCorps, which is broadcast on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, is an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. What I find most moving about the stories is that they are so human, so grounded, so REAL. In brief authentic exchanges, they tell of witness, mentors, discovery, friendship, romance, wisdom and struggle.  They are little treasure boxes of truth that touch deep within and remind us of those sacred places of connection in our hearts and in our lives.  They remind us of who we are, our sameness and the threads that weave us together.

Most recently I was struck by the interview with Walter Dean Myers. The story begins… “Walter Dean Myers grew up in Harlem, the son of a janitor. He became an author, writing young adult fiction that’s especially popular with teenage readers. But as he tells his son, Christopher, there was one person Myers always wanted his writing to impress: his dad”…

In this conversation with his son, Walter describes spending his whole life trying to gain his father’s approval for his gift of writing and the pain and distance that his father’s dismissiveness caused.  It was not until Walter was by his father’s side in his final days that he discovered the barrier that had kept them apart – his father could not read.

Many of us take the ability to read for granted and enjoy the freedom, learning, exploration and joy that reading brings. I love to read and have cherished books since childhood. I cannot imagine my life without the escape of wander and wonder in a good book. Reading is therapeutic and expands my mind and my soul in ways that cannot be reached through Netflix or my slick iPhone apps.  I was fortunate to have an excellent education. I had a loving and supportive family and community who provided the foundation–financial, intellectual, emotional and otherwise to make reading a normal part of my privileged path.

But for many children, this is not the case. Their families struggle to just make it through each day, their parents are unemployed or work two or three  jobs to make ends meet, they live in neighborhoods that are unsafe or they are homeless, they are poor, they are hungry. These families’ most basic needs are not met and, therefore, the time or energy necessary to encourage a child to read is simply not there. And, in turn, these children become adults limited by their inability to read, like Walter Dean Myers’ father. 

On the same day that I heard the StoryCorps piece, I was invited to attend an open house for the Juvenile Literacy Center that serves court involved youth in Wake County. At this event, a story was told about a young man who just recently graduated from an alternative school for troubled youth. He is a success story and when asked what had made the difference for him, he explained that when he entered the school he did not know how to read and that literacy is what altered his course toward high school graduation.

And just this week, I was speaking with a friend who was tutoring a middle school student in Durham, a 6th grader who  stumbled on words like “the,” and with sadness in his voice asked “don’t they teach you to read at this school?” But unfortunately we all know that not every school has the resources to reach every child.  It just makes me want to cheer for the youth who learned to read and to find and teach that 6th grader who can’t and to call on others to help!

So, think about what it means to be able to read and the possibility and power of improved literacy for the future of all in our community. Check out volunteer opportunities at local United Way partner Literacy Centers (Durham, Orange, Wake ) or your local schools and, on occasion, tune into StoryCorps for more words that speak and seep.

Laurie Williamson, United Way of the Greater Triangle’s Community Impact Director, wrote this guest blog on literacy.