OKC literacy programs reach out to nonreaders 

At 25 years old, Angela Vermillion is already an expert. Unable to solve simple math problems at her Taco Mayo job, Vermillion began mastering the art of concealing her shortcomings. She disguised her inability to read, write and count to co-workers, managers and friends.


She had everyone in the dark; no one knew her secret: She was illiterate.

But now, Vermillion doesn't mind that she's blown her cover. She wants to become an expert at something else " living a literate life.

Vermillion stopped going to public school in the fifth grade, when she and her mother decided Vermillion would receive better help from home schooling. She never earned her GED, and now that she is taking literacy classes at Community Literacy Centers with support from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families " or TANF " and reading at a fifth-grade level, she realizes the challenges that are ahead of her.

"I have cried months at a time because it's going to take me year before I can catch up to get my GED. I want to become a veterinarian assistant and that doesn't take very long, but it's going to take me a long time," Vermillion said. "At least when I finally do get there, I can say I worked harder than anyone else for it."

For nearly 140,000 Oklahomans, illiteracy is a burden that transforms simple tasks like reading the newspaper or filling out a job application into daunting challenges. Employment opportunities are limited and advancing to higher-paying positions is usually not considered.

Community Literacy Centers is one of Oklahoma's largest literacy providers, helping more than 1,000 people a year learn to read and write with the assistance of an entirely volunteer-run staff. Still, thousands of illiterate citizens are living lives that adult learner Ronda Mendoza plans to leave behind with her completion of Community Literacy Centers' literacy program.

Dropping out of school only one year short of receiving her diploma, Mendoza, 43, never mastered reading, spelling or basic math. She worked a series of jobs after dropping out of high school, but always managed to hide her shortcomings, turning down promotions whenever she was offered advancement.

Now Mendoza is pursuing her education, while receiving financial support from TANF and emotional support and inspiration from her six children.

"Each and every one of my children love school, and they're all very smart, A and B students. So when I look at them, I know they had to get that from somewhere, from morals or what I've taught them," Mendoza said. "When they're gone it's going to be me, and I'm going to have to start taking care of myself, so I want to be able to do that."

Mendoza and Vermillion were able to find the help they need from TANF to become literate and survive in a fast-paced world where reading and writing are necessary skills. But for many metro Oklahomans who are reading below a fourth-grade level, seeking help is too shameful or too impossible to find.

In most cases, the problem is not identifying that help is needed " the difficulty lies in determining where to turn for assistance. General information sources, like the Internet and phone book, require users to read and have the skills to use those resources, making the search for literacy providers even more of a challenge.

In October 2006, five of Oklahoma City's most influential literacy advocates saw the barriers potential adult learners were facing in their personal quests to becoming literate. Wanting to eliminate those obstacles while raising awareness of literacy issues, Community Literacy Centers, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, the Junior League of Oklahoma City, the United Way and Retired Senior Volunteer Program formed the Oklahoma City Metro Literacy Coalition, a nonprofit organization committed to achieving 100 percent literacy in the metro area.

"I saw a need for the coalition because most of us are very small. Primarily, most of the organizations work with one or two people and have all the difficulties you would think (of) with that small of a staff," said Becky O'Dell, executive director of Community Literacy Centers and one of the coalition's founding board members. "I saw the need for us to be able to work together on some issues, whether it be funding or outreach. So a coalition seemed like a natural way to go."

On May 1, the coalition released a yearlong study on the status of literacy in OKC. Its results communicate the urgency with which the coalition hopes to tackle illiteracy.

"Our role is making sure that people who need those services know how to find them," said Linda Maisch, executive director for the Oklahoma City Metro Literacy Coalition. "People knew there were services out there, but there wasn't one place you could go, and now there is and that's us."

The coalition's first step toward achieving its goal of a literate Oklahoma City was starting an open dialogue among community leaders, literacy providers and workforce personnel. From an economic perspective, a literate community provides employers with the most equipped employees, Maisch said.

A study in the Aug. 28, 2004, issue of The Economist found that with a 1 percent rise in literacy scores, there is a resulting 2.5 percent labor productivity increase and a 1.5 percent gross domestic product increase per person. With effects like these, increasing literacy is an achievement from which the Oklahoma City economy and community would benefit.

"Our big goal is to bring the community together, to bring literacy to everyone in the community," Maisch said. "If you can't read and write, you can't reach your full potential. The bottom line is that if we as a community want to be strong, every one of our citizens has to be literate."

By developing relationships in the community through topical approaches, the coalition directors and members plan to bring literacy to a forefront in people's minds.

Last fall, the first workforce literacy forum was held, and a smaller forum hosted by Northeast Resources Center Inc. " or NERCI " improved communication and idea suggestions between adult-learning providers. For NERCI, involvement with the OKC literacy coalition has helped its facilities with funding, while allowing Director Marilyn Long to promote the center's literacy program.

Focusing on educating not only adults, but children too, NERCI was founded in 2003. Its program helps adults with a planned curriculum that includes healthy lifestyle and financial literacy in addition to reading, writing and math instruction.  An after-school program at this center also strives to prevent illiteracy by working with children to enhance the skills they are learning in school.

NERCI has helped more than 1,500 people reach their full potential and become literate, and Long said that literacy transforms the way her students look at their lives.

"We have seen a lot of them change the way they are thinking," she said. "They feel more confidence in themselves to go out and start making changes in their lives."

It's programs like NERCI's that O'Dell said will have the most overall impact on tackling illiteracy.

"I think we have to look at the problem from all sides. We have some organizations that are either working from the side of the children or those who are working with adults," O'Dell said. "We need to work with the entire family because there's a greater chance that if the parents are illiterate, the children are illiterate."

Most literacy programs in the metro area base their operations completely on volunteers and contributions from the community. The complete study on literacy conducted by the Oklahoma City Metro Literacy Coalition has more infromation to help improve the state of literacy.  "Reneé Selanders 

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