August 16, 2017

Boykin speaks at annual Lee County Literacy Coalition dinner

This article was written by Amber Franklin, an Auburn University Student. She attended the Annual Dinner and then interviewed a number of attendees to compile this article.

A 29-year-old single mother of four, working to earn her GED and provide her children with opportunities she hasn’t had.

A 53-year-old stroke survivor, brushing up on reading, math and science skills so she too can receive her GED.

An older factory worker, learning basic reading skills so he can fill out job applications and read work announcements.

Although they are from different walks of life, with different levels of skills, each of these people are “learners” – people working with the Lee County Literacy Coalition to increase their literacy skills.

The Lee County Literacy Coalition, a nonprofit United Way agency, pairs each learner with a tutor, who helps them identify and achieve their goals. The coalition focuses on helping learners become more proficient in reading, math, science and GED preparation skills, but many times learners find their tutoring has helped them in other areas.

Sue Edge, executive director of the coalition, speaks of her learners and tutors with the compassion of a mother.

“I love people and I love people to be all they can be,” Edge says. “And I see how they cannot be what they need to be.”

As director, Edge finds learners and tutors and pairs them up according to their needs, goals and personalities. Since people come from all walks of adult life, Edge said the type of learners who come in vary.

“You just get an influx at different types of different learners,” Edge says. “There for a while we were getting more GED, but I think that was the last year because of the push to get that through. But now I’ve picked up a lot more learners for reading and stuff, and I love to see those people come.”

Domonique Frazier, the 29-year old mother of four, has been coming to the coalition for a year and half. She has been working to pass the GED, and recently acquired her Certified Nursing Assistant certificate.

“I can never imagine a program like this, you know, to help us, because ain’t nothing for free,” Frazier says. “And education is very expensive, especially when you’ve got kids, so I’m very blessed for that.”

Frazier attended school until the 12th grade, but never graduated, and hopes that her determination to earn her GED will provide a good example for her children.

“I really want my education because I know that education’s going to get me where I want to be and where I need to be for their sake,” Frazier says. “I mean, I look at my kids, and they say, ‘Momma, did you go to school, did you graduate, and did you go to college?’ and I look at them like, ‘No,’ you know, and it’s a sad thing to tell your kids. You want to tell them stories that will push them to go further in life, you know?”

Frazier said she has experienced negativity from her family and others, but has learned from experience to never let others bring her down.

Frazier has experienced another struggle many with adult illiteracy battle with – the many responsibilities that come with being an adult. Trying to balance raising her children, working and attending tutoring sessions is a constant juggling act.

“I don’t have time, but I make time,” Frazier says. “It’s really, really, really hard, but I have to try to maintain. Sometimes I just feel like …” She stops and throws her hands up, looking exasperated. Her vibrant smile and passionate speech falter for a moment. “But I can’t do that, because if I fail, they’re going to fail. … I try to boost myself for my kid’s sake, so they can have the life they momma never will.”

Another learner, Ivan Mendez, also works hard to balance a full-time job and his education. Mendez works construction, sometimes as long as 14-hour days, while also taking English as a Second Language courses at Southern Union and spending four hours a week with his coalition tutor, Julie Rock.

“You have so many responsibilities, being an adult,” Rock says. “And you have so much ground to make up for, because you’ve got all this lost time. With Ivan, he’s been so gung ho about the studying, he’s got high expectations to get his GED, to go to college, to get a job, and I have not seen him get discouraged.”

Rock and Mendez make a perfect pair, she beaming and complimenting Mendez’s accomplishments, while he stands to the side smiling shyly. Rock was previously a tutor in Michigan, but knew she had to get involved with a literacy group when she moved to Alabama.

“I just realized there are so many adults out there that cannot read, and it broke my heart,” Rock says. “When I moved to Alabama and found out that 30 percent of adults do not read in this state, I was shocked. And when I met Ivan, he was just so enthusiastic about getting his GED, that just made me want to help him reach his goals.

Indeed, many people do not know the full extent of adult illiteracy or its effects on the state and different facets of the economy, healthcare and more.

According to the Literacy Council of West Alabama, 1 in 4 Alabama residents are functionally illiterate, while in Central Alabama alone, 92,980 adults are illiterate. Of the number of adults on food stamps or unemployment, 75 percent have some kind of learning or literacy deficiency.

“Lee County, we’re about 13 percent illiterate, so that’s a lot,” Edge says. “… People don’t realize that we have this problem in Lee County, and what it’s costing Lee County for people who are not able to work.”

Edge said she believes that many times the lack of knowledge comes from a stigma surrounding illiterate adults, and the fact that adult illiteracy is not highly advertised. Edge and the coalition’s board of directors have tried to incorporate new events, such as a spelling bee and a “Reading Between the Wines” tasting, to draw more attention to their cause, but haven’t gotten as much support as they would like.

“We have very few people donate to the literacy coalition, because it’s not something that’s pie in the sky and what people want to see,” Edge says. “It’s hidden, and people don’t accept it. … It’s one of those things that’s just sliding under the rug.”

Because of these stigmas and the lack of knowledge, illiterate adults searching for help often have a hard time finding it, or do not want to ask for help.

“I think they feel, not exactly intimidation, but maybe that fear of ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to know what I don’t know,’ or ‘I’m this age, look at what they know and what I don’t know,’” Edge said. “I think that does play a part in them forthcoming, because sometimes it takes them a while [to open up], and sometimes they’ll do it right off.”

Katy Ferrari, who has been a tutor for approximately a year, said she has met learners who have concealed their illiteracy from everyone around them.

“I’ve talked to some learners that they come to tutoring from out of town, even if there’s a literacy program in their own town, because they don’t want people in their community to know or know that they’re doing it,” Ferrari says.

Ferrari tutors an older man who is learning basic literacy skills, and says this has made her admire and learn from him.

“It’s important to be respectful and remember that he has a lot more life experience than me and he has done a lot more,” Ferrari says. “… I just admire them so much, for coming in and asking for help. It puts you in a vulnerable position, as an adult.”

Edge says she is trying to find new ways to spread the word about the literacy coalition and create better resources, such as a better building and more volunteers and staff, for learners.

“I’m trying my best to figure out ‘How can we get out there to tell people our story?’” Edge said. “We had stories when we did Reading Between the Wines, the spelling bee and the United Way campaign, but what can we do to really, really wake up this community?”

As for reaching the goals of the students, many will take the GED test in the next month. Frazier, who just missed passing the GED by 10 points a few weeks ago, is trying to stay positive.

“If I don’t pass it this time, I’m just going to go berserk,” Frazier says, with a slight laugh. “I might just have to give up.”

She pauses, and glances at the children running around in circles by her feet, laughing and picking out books from the bags she just filled.

“But I don’t want to even say that. I don’t want to say those words. I won’t give up.”