Program Combating Iliteracy To Have Offices In New Library

Milton Thorpe describes the more than four decades of his life spent not knowing how to read as "hiding behind the mirror." When he finally decided to embark on his journey to literacy a year-and-a-half ago, he decided to face himself head on and "look through the mirror."

Thorpe decided that things had to change. In a moment of desperation, he found out about the READ Center, his solution to the problem. The center for Reading and Education for Adult Development, helps Central Virginia adults to become literate.

"That same day I was praying, it came across the radio:the READ Center," he said.

And when the new Petersburg Library opens this fall, the READ Center will have a home there. That will be a key tool in the city's long-term plan to fight adult illiteracy, supporters say.

Thorpe used the READ Center to change a lifetime of not reading. The 49-year-old had received his high school diploma after spending much of his time in school in special education classes but never learned how to read. Thorpe said that he didn't receive much help and encouragement from his teachers who identified him as having a problem but continued to promote him without the extra help he needed.

"I always thought something was wrong with me because I didn't get it as fast," he said.

Thorpe was raised by his grandparents, who did not have much formal education themselves, so they were not truly aware of his issues.

"They thought that if they sent you to school then you were getting it," he said.

Throughout his adult life, Thorpe learned to excel while hiding his illiteracy from others. At his job as a tractor-trailer driver, he was promoted to a supervisory position. Thorpe would delegate clerical tasks to others, while he focused on skills such as maintenance that were weak points for others.

Thorpe plans on improving his literacy skills to obtain his master's in theology. He is currently a minister at Now Faith that works Christian Center.

"I've done everything else and now, I will do this too. I'm going to get to where I need to be," he said.

Thorpe can now read the Bible in front of his congregation without embarrassment. "Now if I get up and mess up, so what? I am still on my way," he said.

Thorpe said that nothing about learning to read was shameful except for putting it off.

"The only shame that comes out of it is when you don't do it," he said. "When you sit on the couch and say 'no' - time is slipping."

Thorpe now encourages other adults to take the first step of seeking help.

"I tell anybody that's hiding behind the mirror that they will always live in torment," he said.

The READ Center helps 300 adults annually to become literate. The organization has classes in Petersburg, Richmond, Chesterfield, Henrico and Hopewell with tutors in Colonial Heights and Hanover. It was founded in 1982 as the Literacy Council of Metropolitan Richmond by Altrusa International of Richmond, a professional women's business club and became a non-profit in 1984. The name was changed to the READ Center in 1995.

In Petersburg, the program currently holds classes at Tabernacle Baptist Church and the Salvation Army Education Center but will now have an office in the new Petersburg Public Library. Harriet Scruggs, executive director, said that the organization is weighing whether to close the two locations when the library opens. It is projected to do so in the late fall.

Aside from being a relevant fit with the mission to improve literacy, Scruggs said that the new location is surrounded by less stigma.

"Everyone going into the library can read," she said. "They will be able to maintain their anonymity and make it possible to keep their secret from the rest of the world until they are ready to let it know they are struggling, if ever."

She said the new library's location on Washington Street across from the Petersburg bus station is convenient for students using public transit.

Scruggs also pointed out that the library has the added benefit of children's programs and books that can entertain them while parents are in class.

"It's a beautiful one-stop shopping center the whole family can experience," she said.

Laura Schoolcraft, a READ Center teacher, said that the library also provided the most obvious: books and reference materials.

Students at the Hopewell program are required to hold a library card, which is something the READ Center is planning for Petersburg.

Schoolcraft said the library environment itself is enriching and opens people up to another world.

"People that don't read well tend to have a small life," she said. "It could be a movie shown or a knitting class that gets them out of their tight circle."

As for the need of such a program in the Tri-Cities, the READ Center points to 2010 census data of adults without GEDs or high school diplomas as prime indicators of illiteracy. Petersburg has the highest number adults who do not have either a high school diploma or GED at 27.82 percent, followed by Hopewell at 24.44 percent.

Schoolcraft said that everyone has their own reasons for starting late. On average, her students are in their 40s with a range from 18 to 70.

Some say it's their turn now after putting children through school. Others are grandparents raising their grandchildren who are at a loss as to how to help with homework.

But no matter the reason, each student has personal goals to work toward with a tutor and larger one's to accomplish with the class.

Larger goals include learning how to use a checking account and how to address letters. They also build computer literacy with tasks such as how to type, erase and save documents.

As far as individual goals, many have received jobs or have been promoted. Some have obtained their driver's license because they can now read the test. Others can read food labels in the grocery store to avoid certain products for health reasons. One woman learned to read the bus routes so she could transfer from Hopewell to Petersburg.

Despite the goal, Schoolcraft said the moment that each student gets it feels the same.

"There's those aha moments where you've made a connection and they get it," she said. "It's when you're explaining a spelling or phonics skill and they are not just mimicking back to you."

- For information about the library project or how you can help, please go to the website of the Petersburg Library Foundation at www..petersburglibraryfoundation.org or call 804-733-2387 ext. 35

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