The gift of Grandpa reading
By Steve Herring
Published in News on December 26, 2010 1:50 AM
Donna Phillips of Literacy Connections listens as Milton reads to her during a tutoring session. After years of struggling to get by as an adult unable to read, Milton decided he wanted to be able to read to his grandson and write notes to his wife.
For one Wayne County boy, the best Christmas present this year won't be found under a tree -- it will come when his grandfather reads to him for the first time.
And while the boy may be too young realize it, he has given his grandfather an equally precious gift -- the determination to finally learn how to read and write.
His grandfather, Milton, who asked that his last name not be used, is now able to give his grandson that gift. He also is looking forward to the day when he can write notes to his wife. And she eagerly awaits the day when he can express himself with pen and paper.
Both are goals that Milton, 54, has labored toward since September as an adult learner at the newly formed Wayne County Literacy Connections.
"Even before my grandson moved in with me he used to come over just about every day," Milton said. "Sometimes he would go get a book and say, 'Granddaddy, read this.' I couldn't do it. I want to be able to read to him so I said it was time (to learn).
"That will be one of his Christmas gifts. It may be after Christmas. I don't know if I will be able to get it all together before Christmas. I may let my wife help me if I miss a word."
"Actually he is working on a Christmas book for his grandson and he did quite well last week. He is going to rehearse a little more tonight and that is his Christmas gift for his family," said Donna Phillips, Milton's tutor at Literacy Connections and assistant director at the Wayne County Public Library, said last week.
As he looked through the book, "Max's Christmas," Milton said he still gets jittery and often frustrated when he reads.
"It seems like my words start going together or something. I guess I'm nervous," he said.
However, Ms. Phillips said her pupil was not giving himself enough credit. The more he reads and writes, the easier it will get, she assured him.
Milton is among the 23 percent of the adults in Wayne County who have less than a high school education and many of whom struggle with reading and writing.
Ms. Phillips said a study by a committee formed by the Chamber of Wayne County's Education Council showed that adult literacy needed to be addressed, Ms. Phillips said. It was from that study that Literacy Connections was launched, with initial funding from United Way and the county government. It is operating under Wayne Charitable Partnership's non-profit status until it can secure its own.
United Way's most recent community needs assessment also identified adult literacy as a problem. According to surveys, 16 percent of the county's adults lack basic literacy skills, meaning they have difficulty locating a piece of information in a written document. That is higher than the state average.
Literacy Connections works with adults ages 18 and older, teaching basic reading and writing skills and English as a second language.
It also trains volunteers to work with people on a one-to-one basis or in small groups. The goal is to help them reach an eighth-grade reading level and be able to continue their education if they wish.
"We always need volunteers," Ms. Phillips said. "I know of at least three students who are waiting right now for a volunteer tutor. We are always recruiting adult learners and volunteer tutors. We try to find volunteers to work in the area a student comes from.
"So far, except for one from Dudley, all of the students are from Goldsboro. The goal is to match them up in the community they live because that is the easiest."
The students meet at least once a week for at least two hours. For now, the meetings are held mostly in churches and libraries.
"We have our very fine community college that does a wonderful job and they were the only organization addressing adult literacy," Ms. Phillips said. "But their program is really designed for folks who can learn in a lab setting. We knew there were adults who needed one-on-one tutoring and that was just a need that was not being met in our community.
"For our committee, that became our work, to form a literacy council in Wayne County. We started serving students in late September."
The students range in age from recent graduates all the way to senior citizens. Their stories are "all over the place," Ms. Phillips said.
"I guess I grew up in a county that I guess if you didn't know the teachers they just sent you on," Milton said. "It wasn't that they spent time to find out if every kid could read or not and you'd get a certain age and they would send you to the next grade.
"I quit in the eighth grade, but like I said, over the years they had just sent me from grade to grade and by the time I got to the eighth grade I was embarrassed if the teacher called me to read something and I couldn't, so I started to do things to get kicked out of school. I got kicked out when I was 15 and a half and when I got 16 I didn't have to go anymore. I quit at 16."
Others his age share Milton's story.
"We also have some students who are fairly recent, either graduates or dropouts who were nearing 11th or 12th grade, got frustrated and dropped out," Ms. Phillips said. "Some life-changing event happens that finally brings them to us.
"We have one young man who said he was a pretty good athlete in school and has kind of the same story (as Milton's) and kind of got passed along. He eventually got frustrated and dropped out of school."
The man was able to get jobs, but they were physical in nature, she said. He recently was injured and realized that his body will not allow him to do that kind of work forever. All of a sudden, he realized that needed an education, she said.
"Then we have a woman who grew up on a tenant farm and it was pretty much expected that the children would work on the farm when they got older. She is coming back wanting to learn to read and get her education.
"I am so, so impressed with a person who will go to work all day, often times very difficult work in the cold sometimes, and they care enough about this goal, improving the quality of life for themselves and their family, then turn around and come back out and attend tutoring at night and even do their homework so that they can reach their goals. I very much admire that dedication."
Milton said he knows that not being able to read has held him back in many ways, including the jobs he has held. Over the years, he has worked construction, on road crews, done plumbing and carpentry work and was employed at a chicken processing plant.
"It (learning to read) is a lot of work, but I know that it's worth it. I would have a better job and not have to work outside in the cold like I am doing now, crawling up under houses and that kind of stuff," he said.
Milton first tried the literacy program at WCC, but got discouraged and dropped out after a few months.
Ms. Phillips said that when the group formed the school provided a list of names and contact numbers of students who had been in the lab and reading below eighth-grade level -- the ones they thought could best benefit from one-on-one tutoring.
"Milton happened to be one of the names, and I was a former tutor of his at the college," she said. "I said, 'That is my student.' I called him. We started in October."
Milton said he had basically given up on ever learning to read and write until he received her call.
Ms. Phillips said it is important for people to understand that Literacy Connections does not duplicate the college's literacy program. The group focuses on people who need one-on-one tutoring, she said.
"Once they are able to read eighth-grade level, then they are more likely to be successful in that lab setting at the community college," she said.
"So many of our adult learners come to us having been told they are too dumb to learn," Ms. Phillips said. "That is absolutely not true. She said people learn to read in different ways. In Milton's case, she said, she told him they would find "a way to make that dream come true."
Milton said his wife, who is a college graduate, is proud of him.
"She used to try and push me all of the time," he said. "She used to start out trying to help me, but it wouldn't help. I guess I was so ashamed to try to read in front of her, knowing that I couldn't. She'd try to help me but I guess I was too embarrassed for her to help me."
Milton's wife and Ms. Phillips have talked about his progress. His wife expressed a great desire for her husband to be able to write simple notes to her.
"I told him I though his wife was talking about a 'honey-do' list. I asked her that and she said, 'No, like an I-love-you note.' So that is something he is also working on."
Milton said that one of his two daughters, both of whom read, figured out early on that he couldn't read and would go to her mother for help with her school work.
That hurt, he said.
"I used to tell my daughters all the time that you need to go to school and learn so you won't have to be like I am," he said.
To help hone his reading and writing skills, Milton shares a journal with Ms. Phillips. They pass it back and forth each week.
"He writes a paragraph to me and I take it back and we don't look at punctuation or anything like that," she said. "Then I write and pass it back to him. The goal of that activity is really twofold.
"One is for us to strengthen our relationship and two, I told Milton that I want him to begin to see himself as a reader and a writer. He has never been able to put his thoughts to paper. I think that is important to him and it is building his confidence and I am extremely proud of his effort."
Reading and writing go hand in hand and there is always a writing homework assignment, she said.
Learning to read is Milton's main goal but not his only one. He has some short-term goals, one of which he achieved last week when he got a library card for the first time, Ms. Phillips said.
"One of the other goals that he shared with me is that he would like to be able to apply for a higher level (at work) and in order for him to do that in the kind of work he has now he has to be able to read a work order, something he is unable to do at this point."
Milton said that over the years he learned to "maneuver himself around" not being able to read.
"It's a lot of work trying not to let people know," he said.
"He and other adult learners have had to develop these tremendous coping skills to keep this a secret and keep it hidden from other people," Ms. Phillips said. "It is amazing the coping skills that they have developed."
Ms. Phillips said Milton told her he also wants to be able to participate more in the political process -- that he would like to be able to read better so he can learn more about candidates and issues. H also would like to be able to read a menu and order his own meal instead of waiting for his wife to order and saying, "I'll have the same thing."
Milton is just one of hundreds of Wayne County residents who are missing out on a fuller life by not being able to read and write, Ms. Phillips said. Literacy Connections is a way for them to learn, no matter their age.
"There is a real need for this (program) in our community," she said.
For more information about Literacy Connections, call the library at 735-1824, ext. 5128, and ask to speak to Adrienne Strickland, the program's director.