07/22/12 — Turning the page

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Turning the page

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 22, 2012 1:50 AM

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Literacy Connections of Wayne County lead tutor Angela Wallace, left, works with Jennifer Backus to review a reading workbook.

Edward, 62, was someone everybody called when they needed machinery installed or repaired.

He was in such demand that he traveled from Maine to California on a regular basis.

But he had a secret, one he kept from colleagues, family and friends.

Edward could not read.

"I have hidden it all my life," he said. "I maneuvered around it. I developed a lot of techniques to get around it. When I would go into a restaurant, I would look at what people had on their plates and order accordingly. The way I got around reading is that the new man on the job had to do the paperwork."

But now, Edward, who asked that his last name not be used, is doing something about it, with a tutor at Literacy Connections of Wayne County.

Learning to read is a lifelong dream come true, he said.

"I never dreamed I would be here in front of a computer and be able to do anything at all," he said. "It is wonderful. I can't begin to tell you how wonderful it is.

"I have been introduced to a world that I never knew was here. I sure wish I had stepped forward years ago. It makes me look back and wonder where I might have been if I could have read."

Jennifer Backus, 38, knows exactly how Edward feels.

She is working at Literacy Connections, too, with lead tutor Angela Wallace.

Her goal is to show her 13-year-old daughter that it is possible to start over -- and why she should stay in school.

Jennifer is pursuing her GED.

She said her daughter loves that she is learning to read.

"When she gets up to go to school, she wants me to get up and go to school, too," she said.

Edward and Jennifer are among the 80 students at Literacy Connections, an organization that teaches adults ages 18 and older basic reading, writing and English language skills through free and confidential individual tutoring offered by trained volunteers.

Both Edward and Jennifer encouraged those who might need a little help to sign up for the program -- and to begin the next steps in their lives.

"When I was a student in school they didn't know I was dyslexic," Jennifer said. "When I got to be a fourth- or fifth-grade student, they pushed me through school. I didn't like that. When I got to the ninth grade, I didn't know anything and I quit."

She hopes to show her daughter that she should make a different choice.

"I want her to know you have to have this to get a job. (Reading) makes me feel good. It makes me feel good because when you get out in the world (not reading) will hurt you."

She has already achieved one of her goals -- passing a seventh-to-eighth-grade reading test -- and is pushing herself to move on to the next level.

She said Literacy Connections is a big part of how far she has come.

"If you sit down to read, you get frustrated," she said. "Come here and it will help you a lot. It helped me. Words I didn't know, I know now. It will make you happy afterwards, real happy."

Edward has a similar story. He dropped out of school, adding that even when he was in school, he did not attend often since he lived on a small farm and had to work. A friend told him about a construction job. He applied and was hired as a janitor, but when he left 10 years later, he was in charge of all outdoor construction.

He later went into business for himself and became much sought after because of his ability to install and repair equipment, even modifying it to be more efficient.

Edward learned to interpret blueprints and maps, and how to sign his name and driver's license so he could register at motels. He even learned to fly and earned his pilot's license.

But as equipment became more computerized, Edward said he "hit a brick wall," and was no longer able to disguise what he called his handicap. He left construction and purchased a swine operation. He has since sold the farm to invest in some apartments and is retired.

He decided to learn to read after a friend told him about all of the interesting materials available online. People at Wayne Community College referred him to Literacy Connections Executive Director Pat Yates.

Now, he works with his tutor, Jan Edgerton, and even has a computer at home, donated by Mrs. Edgerton, that he uses to practice the skills he is learning.


Edward and Jennifer's stories are not that unusual.

It is estimated that one out of 10 people in Wayne are non-readers and that one out of four read below the third-grade level, Ms. Yates said.

The county loses an average of $45 million in revenues annually because of its low literacy level, she said. Add to that $3 million in medical costs because people who cannot read do not go to the doctor until a health issue becomes a major and more costly problem.

"The reason Literacy Connections was started here is that a number of businesses and industries came forward and said, 'We have a problem here in Wayne County. We can't find enough people to work our jobs. They can't read our safety manuals. They can't read dials on our machines. We are hiring people and having to fire them a day later when we discover they can't read enough to function,'" Ms. Yates said. "So its really a workforce development issue."

Initial funding for the program came from United Way, Wayne County, and Compassion Capital. In April, the program moved into its new home on East Ash Street and is now moving to look for more private and public funding sources.

The goal is to use the new offices to help more and more people.

The offices include a computer lab, cubicles for privacy and a room that, in the fall, will be the site for special literacy class, Ms. Yates said

The program also extends countywide, far beyond the walls of the center. Tutoring takes place in public places including one fast food restaurant that is convenient for a student who cannot get to the center, she said.

Community support is vital to the program, Ms. Yates said.

"A lot of our books, material and traveling expenses are from United Way. The facility here and the funds for my salary and for the other employees come from the county. So we owe them a huge debt. The other thing, we have great partnerships that have provided us with resources.

"Wayne Community College has donated hundreds of books, and cassette recorders that we use with our students. United Way donated the cubicle walls and photocopier to us. Bill Keel of Keelnet donated four computer systems. We have had private donors donate hundreds of dollars to us. We have just been really blessed with the good people."

Ms. Yates said she hopes that the community support will continue and she and the Literacy Connections tutor network can reach more people.

"We know there are people out there who need us," she said. "We want to make it possible for them to get the services they need in a supportive environment. Community support makes that possible."