Rob Smith believes in walking the walk when it comes to being an example for his children.

Although he couldn’t read, Smith made it through school by "showing up and bluffing" and with "help" from allies who knew he couldn’t read. He always carried a book with him for appearance sake. When he couldn’t work for a year after being injured in a car accident, he finally learned to read, advancing from a fifth-grade to 10th-grade reading level. He’s now a Kalamazoo Literacy Council board member and president of its Student Advisory Council.

"Everything is like new," he says.

Most adults take the ability to read for granted. Imagine, however, if you couldn’t. How would you fill out a job application or determine the right dose of a medication? How would you respond when children asked you to read to them?

According to the National Institutes of Health, the most important factor in children’s academic success is the reading level of their caregivers. Children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of ending up at the lowest literacy levels themselves.

Michael Evans, executive director of KLC, will tell you this is a serious problem here in Kalamazoo County. Literacy, he says, is the path to addressing the many challenges — like poverty, health, education and workforce preparation — facing people in our community who have been marginalized.

"The good news," says Evans, "is that with a fully engaged community, we can make a difference. We can build a solution." Kalamazoo Community Foundation funding and partnership has helped KLC in its work.

The problem

More than 13 percent of Kalamazoo County’s adult population struggles to read. KLC focuses its resources on those who are 25 and older. Unfortunately, the number of people seeking KLC’s assistance has outpaced the number of available volunteer tutors. The wait for a tutor can be up to six months, and by then many adults get discouraged and lose interest in getting the help they need.

The solution

"The need is too great to rely exclusively on individual tutoring," says Evans.

So KLC’s approach is to place literacy centers "in the path of the adult learner" throughout various neighborhoods. Helping KLC in this work is the Adult Literacy Collaborative, a group of adult education, workforce development, English as a Second Language and literacy agencies, and other community organizations.

"Our solution is pretty straight- forward," says Evans. "We’re creating a county-wide adult learning campus that specifically addresses this need."

KLC and the Collaborative developed an innovative, cost-effective solution called the Community Literacy Center Model. The pilot program saw students attend lessons on a drop-in basis at 14 sites, with partners providing free space and volunteers. In one year, in addition to learning to read, more than 132 students improved their employment/job skills, obtained a driver’s license or helped their children with homework.

Evans believes the Community Literacy Center Model has made Kalamazoo a leader in adult literacy efforts.

When pressed, he smiles and proudly shares KLC recently received an Innovation Grant Award from the National Literacy Directory, a nationwide resource of literacy and education programs supporting adults, families and youth.

The goal

What’s an acceptable illiteracy rate for the greater Kalamazoo community? "Zero," Evans quickly says. "Let’s make a statistical difference first. Then we can work toward 100 percent literacy.

"I don’t know anyone who is embarrassed to say they want to learn something new," he says. "That should also apply to those who want to learn to read, but they face a real stigma.

"We need to raise awareness that it’s okay for adults to want to learn to read. Everyone needs to read."

July 12, 2017