Two torsos wearing literacy shirts

Five questions with: Karen La Forge, executive director, The READ Center

“Without literacy, there is no equity,” reads t-shirts and sweatshirts that help raise funds for The READ Center, a community-based organization helping adults improve their lives through literacy.

Founded almost four decades ago, the nonprofit READ Center provides classroom instruction, individual tutoring and community programming in an effort to help improve reading, writing, math and digital skills to adults in our community.

We caught up with Karen La Forge, executive director of The READ Center, to learn more about the organization, its mission and how it serves the community.

What’s The READ Center’s core mission?

The READ Center changes lives by helping adults improve their reading, writing, basic math and digital skills so they can fulfill their goals as workers, family members and citizens. Everyone needs and deserves a literate life.

The READ Center was founded in 1982 as the Literacy Council of Metropolitan Richmond by Altrusa International Richmond, Inc., a professional businesswomen’s service club. Altrusans recognized the impact of low adult literacy in their community and felt compelled to offer solutions. READ became a 501(c)(3) organization in 1984.

For more than 37 years, READ has trained and provided resources to volunteer tutors who work on a weekly basis with adult students experiencing literacy issues. Small classroom instruction was added to provide more focused study for beginning readers. Research shows both instruction methods are effective for adult learners.

Can you characterize the extent of the problem you solve locally?

Literacy touches every aspect of our lives. It is essential if we are to eradicate poverty, improve housing opportunities, stabilize families and communities and create sustainable employment. Without literacy skills, today’s adults struggle to take part in the world around them and fail to reach their full potential as parents, community members and employees.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL 2003) estimates 16% of Richmond City adults, 9% of Henrico County adults and 8% of Chesterfield County adults lack basic prose skills including reading, writing and language. Based on 2017 U.S. Census estimates, more than 73,000 adults in the Richmond area lack the fundamental literacy skills needed to function well in the workplace and the community, and to perform everyday tasks such as reading a menu, filling out a job application or completing medical forms.

These adults often live in poverty, endure chronic health issues and have trouble finding and keeping jobs. They pass their inability to read to their children, and the cycle of illiteracy and poverty begins again. A study by Proliteracy found that children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72% chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.

What don’t most people realize or understand?

Adult basic education should be an essential component of anti-poverty and workforce initiatives but is often overlooked because adults are expected to know how to read. Workforce training programs require reading levels of grade 6 or more. GED programs prefer a grade 8 or more reading level. 76% of READ students would not be eligible for these programs without significantly improving their literacy skills. They also lack the digital skills needed to access online job applications or information about services.

Emotional factors such as motivation, engagement and fear of failure play a major role in reading success. These feelings can be especially intense for adults, particularly for learners who have spent years struggling with reading and hiding their inability to read from family members, friends, coworkers, and employers. Only about 10% of adults with literacy issues get help in large part due to the shame and stigma of not reading well as an adult.

Low reading skills do not define READ students. Our students are mothers, fathers, siblings, husbands, and wives. They are employed, unemployed and retired. Our students are artists – painters, musicians, woodworkers, mechanics, seamstress, CNA’s, teaching assistants and more. They are people with dreams and hopes, but they do not read well.

What kind of work do volunteers do to help The READ Center?

More than 100 adult literacy volunteer tutors work with READ students each year. Classroom tutors support customized instruction and help students with their personal goals. One-to-one tutors provide instruction to students individually outside of a classroom. Tutors must complete about eight hours of training including orientation and instructional training before working with READ students. All of this is currently done remotely, as is our instruction. Professional development opportunities are provided to tutors throughout the year.

“We need additional volunteer adult literacy tutors to work remotely with students,” said La Forge. “Helping adults to improve their reading is rewarding and life changing. If you are interested, please visit the READ website and click on the volunteer page for more information and to register for upcoming orientation sessions.”

If $100,000 fell from the sky tomorrow, how would you spend it?

The READ Center is looking to move to a new location in order to bring students, volunteers and staff under one roof. The pandemic has highlighted our need for space as we conduct student assessments, orientations and pre-instruction computer classes in our small conference room.

A true home for READ will provide instructional space for classrooms, library/resource space, space for 1:1 meet and staff offices. By offering one central hub with convenient access for students, READ can grow and innovate programs while building trust in a key area of the community we serve. It will allow for unprecedented collaboration and opportunities with the potential of reaching more adults in the community.

To learn more about The READ Center, visit its website, or follow it on Facebook and Twitter. You can also donate directly to the organization here.

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