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Thursday, May 27, 2004 11:07 am

Will VIA/LIiteracy celebrate 20 years?

If you are reading this newspaper, you are at least a fairly literate person. You read for both information and enjoyment. Many adults in central Illinois would not be considered literate, however. By one estimate, 4 million Illinois adults lack the basic literacy skills needed to function effectively in society. For them, reading and writing is a difficult task that is undertaken only when necessary.

People must fill out applications for employment, read menus at restaurants, and understand directions on medicine containers. Parents must read information about their children's education and keep track of appointments, and they need to read to their children so that they will become literate as well. To be informed citizens, we all must read about issues to make wise choices.

For nearly two decades, the Volunteers in Action/Literacy (VIA/Literacy)program at the Lawrence Education Center has been helping people become more literate. In fact, the program will celebrate its 20th anniversary this fall -- if it continues to be funded.

Over the years, the program has trained hundreds of volunteers to tutor Lawrence students. Area businesses, churches, and the Lincoln Library make locations available for tutoring. During a recent visit to the Lawrence site, I talked to a few of the tutors about their experiences.

Barbara Rhoads has been a volunteer since 1993. Her primary interest is helping people from other countries learn English and become U.S. citizens. Rhoads finds it gratifying to attend her students' citizenship ceremonies. "This is the most rewarding volunteer work I've ever done," she says.

Since taking early retirement a couple of years ago, Elizabeth Brodbeck has been helping students who are working toward their high-school diplomas or GEDs. Students say that having a one-on-one person helps them understand the material better. Sometimes a student needs to unlearn the idea that he or she cannot learn and needs to learn that he or she can learn.

Adults who come to the VIA/Literacy program at Lawrence now, however, are being put on a waiting list until staff members have time to produce the needed volunteer resources.

Until the start of this school year, VIA/Literacy had a full-time employee to provide training and technical assistance for volunteers and facilitate matches between volunteers and students. Funding cuts necessitated the elimination of the position. As a result, VIA/Literacy director Bonnie Roberts has blended volunteer and student support, family-literacy work, and secretarial tasks into her current administrative duties.

VIA/Literacy provides family literacy programming during the school year in partnership with Lincoln Library, but Barbara Rochelle, the family-literacy specialist, has seen her full-time position cut by an hour a day. Even so, she is providing direct services for two family-literacy initiatives this year instead of the single one she supported last year. And Rochelle no longer has the assistance of the full-time family-literacy specialist she had last year. In the past, the program has received funding from the Illinois secretary of state's Literacy Office to provide a summer literacy-education program, but funding was not awarded for this summer. The families with the highest level of poverty and lowest level of education were the individuals affected by this loss of funding.

VIA/Literacy staff members are anxiously waiting to hear how much funding, if any, will be available next year. Even receiving less funding for the program would be a tremendous loss to Springfield. More funding is needed to put the program back on a productive level. This city, this state, and this country need literate citizens, now more than ever. The VIA/Literacy program needs community support. It needs you!

To learn about receiving literacy services, volunteering, or providing other types of support for the program, contact Bonnie Roberts at VIA/Literacy, Lawrence Education Center, 217-525-3025, before July 16.

For more information about the Springfield Area Literacy Council, contact Don Hickman, president, at donanchor@aol.com or 217-546-6956. You can also take action by contacting your state legislator. Your voice is important!

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