Imagine for a minute that you were applying for a job and the manager handed you an application or more likely showed you to a computer to fill out the application and you couldn’t read the words on the page. Or another situation where you or a loved one needed medical attention but you couldn’t tell the person on the other end of the phone what was going on.
These two scenarios are very real, happening daily for people who can’t speak, read or write English. And not all of these people are immigrants. There are thousands of people in the U.S. who can’t read or write but went through our school systems and actually graduated. Whether the teachers didn’t see it or these people played sports and got through on talent doesn’t matter – they can’t engage fully in society.
Being literate – able to speak, read and write – means you can get a job.
Being literate means that you can protect and support your family.
Being literate means you can be a part of society.
Being literate is not a political issue; it is a human issue.
There are many groups and organizations that dedicate themselves to helping teach people the basics of English. One of these groups – the Literacy Volunteers of Monmouth County (LVMC) – recently held their annual fundraiser and honored both a successful student and individual tutors who have contributed to the cause for years.
Many charity fundraisers are attended by those who can afford to donate in large quantities and those people were in the audience for this event but what stood out more were the people who truly believed in the organization.
In particular, the retired men and women who look for a way to give back to the community. Two of the honorees fell into this group. One, a former engineer, never thought of himself as a teacher. If you ask his student who was selected to speak at the event, she has a much different story. She called him friend and thanked him for helping her learn to be able to do the things we might take for granted – making a doctor’s appointment and speaking to her kids’ teachers. He believes that she can do it. He believes in the value of being literate and that she deserves all that that allows his student to achieve.
The other honoree was 96 years old and still tutoring students. As an immigrant himself, he understands the challenges of learning English and he channels that knowledge into making sure other humans have a chance to be all they can be for our society. He can relate to the awkwardness, to not knowing what people are saying, to trying everything you can to learn (even watching movies over and over to memorize how the words sound).
Also in attendance was last year’s student speaker – a young man who never learned how to read and write. His story highlighted that being illiterate happens right in our own communities. He went to school. He found ways to survive the classroom. And then he needed a tutor years later to actually learn how to read and write. He’s still working on his skills but he’s one his way to a different life all together thanks to a tutor who worked with him.
I joined LVMC several years ago when I was laid off from my job. The job search process can be overwhelming, scary and long. So I was determined to do something with my talents. I have always had the gift of loving to read and write and idea of not having that – to not be able to express myself was startling.
My journey paired me with a lovely woman striving to learn English to get a better job and speak to her children’s teachers. She worked hard. I got to know her and her family. I saw first-hand the challenges of children who were bi-lingual taking the lead roles in families so that things could get done (phone calls, filling out forms, etc.). I also learned. I learned that the desire to improve outweighed the fear. It’s the fear of failing. My student was a teacher in her home country and here she had to have her young son teach her.
I could include a bunch of statistics about illiteracy here but those are numbers on a page. These tutors and student are human. They are the people who we may interact with every day but not know who they really are. And many of these tutors do what they do without the spotlight being on them. They do it because they believe.
Believing in a cause means that we can help. Whether it’s dedicating our time or our money, we can help other people achieve what we so often take for granted.
Is there an organization or a cause that you believe in? Share your experiences in the comments sections below.