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Hartford-area organization celebrates 50 years battling low literacy

Nationwide, 22% of adults are reading at or below a second-grade level, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey from 2018. Here in Connecticut, that number is a little lower at 19%, but it’s still way too high for the folks at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford (LVGH), an organization seeking to increase literacy rates among adults in the region.

The LVGH is celebrating its 50th year of operation this month and leaders say their mission remains important not just to their students but to the community as a whole.

“Low literate adults are more likely to experience poverty and poor health,” says LVGH Executive Director Stephen Morris. “Many of these adults struggle daily and can’t move forward with their lives. They can’t pass the written test to get a driver’s license, complete a job application, or follow directions on a prescription bottle.”

Literacy also has impacts on wide-reaching areas, from healthcare to incarceration as well as poverty rates. According to a 2007 report, low literacy is linked to between $106-238 billion in healthcare costs. A study from the Barbara Bush Foundation found that increasing literacy to a sixth-grade level for all adults would generate $2.2 trillion in annual income for the United States. Meanwhile, 75% of incarcerated individuals can be categorized as low-literate and those who participate in educational programs during their incarceration are 43% less likely to recidivate.

The majority of students in LVGH’s programs – roughly two-thirds to three-quarters — are from non-English speaking countries and require assistance to improve their English skills to enter the job market. Some of these students may be highly educated in their home countries but without English literacy are unable to enter the workforce here at the same level they could back home.

For those students, LVGH’s volunteer tutors can help get them on track to living the life they may have come here to lead. In addition to language courses, the organization also provides career services that can help them find work while they continue to work on their communication and literacy. They also provide GED preparation, math, and digital literacy courses.

In one case, according to Development Officer Diane Klingman, the program’s assistant director Christina Mercado was able to work with a student to find him a job in furniture manufacturing based on his previous experience as a tailor in his home country.

While most of their students are learning English as a second (or perhaps third) language, some do come from native English-speaking households and simply lacked the resources to improve their literacy during childhood. According to ProLiteracy, children of low-literate adults are 72% more likely to be low-literate themselves than their peers whose parents had higher literacy rates.

Still others might be suffering from undiagnosed learning difficulties and some may have come from English-speaking countries without access to public education beyond a certain level. 

While the challenges facing literacy programs like the LVGH are great, so, organizers argue, are the obvious benefits. As with most things, the pandemic threw a bit of a wrench into their operations as a quick pivot to digital classes was hampered by students’ access to computers and reliable internet, but they made it work and are back up to capacity in 2022. Speaking with CII on Tuesday, Klingman says the organization is working hard to bring that 19% low-literacy rate from 2018 down as low as they can but the work is hard and likely unending.

If you or someone you know could benefit from LVGH’s programs or if you are interested in getting involved as a volunteer, you can find more information on their website.

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Tricia Ennis

An Emmy and AP award-winning journalist, Tricia has spent more than a decade working in digital and broadcast media. She has covered everything from government corruption to science and space to entertainment and is always looking for new and interesting stories to tell. She believes in the power of journalism to affect change and to change minds and wants to hear from you about the stories you think about being overlooked.