I’m a writer, and reading is one of my favorite activities. I was the kid whose nose was always in a book as my parents drove by fabulous scenery on family vacations, begging me to look. Reading has always been my escape, my reward when my work is done. So when I joined VISTA, I chose to work in literacy. I couldn’t imagine living without reading, not just for pleasure but also simply to function in society. Then I met intelligent, amazingly resourceful people like Tom.
Tom was a long-distance truck driver, and he couldn’t read. His wife of twenty years didn’t know; she planned all his routes for him so he would have more time to relax when he was home. When she went on trips with him, she navigated.
Then one time Tom got lost—I don’t remember in which city. He panicked—maybe it was the traffic or the tons of signs that he couldn’t understand—and he turned the wrong way down a one-way street. He stood on the brake when he realized his mistake.
A policeman saw what he’d done and pulled up beside him. He didn’t write a ticket. He gave Tom directions and sent him on his way.
After that, Tom called Reading Connections, a nonprofit adult literacy program in Greensboro, N.C. He’d heard about it though his church. There had been an announcement to recruit volunteer tutors. He was matched with a tutor (not from his church, because he didn’t want anyone to know) and started meeting as often as his travel schedule allowed. He did workbook exercises while on the road.
Tom didn’t have a learning disability, as so many adults who have trouble with reading do. Nationally, an estimated one in five adults struggle with the most basic literacy tasks. Tom had just fallen behind one year in school and never caught up. He was a nice kid; the teachers kept passing him. As an adult, he’d always been a reliable worker, a quick study. It was the same story when he started learning to read.
After about six months, a strange thing started happening: words began leaping out at him from street signs, billboards, and buildings. Before, the world had been composed of colors and shapes. Now it spoke to him everywhere he looked. It was almost frightening, this switch flipped in his brain, but he loved it. He couldn’t believe how much he’d missed; he said he felt he’d spend the rest of his life just catching up.
There are so many inspiring stories like Tom’s that I came to know during my year as a VISTA: the woman who got tired of having other people writing her checks for her; the warehouse worker who kept getting fired for not filling out paperwork.
It wasn’t hard to love being part of an organization that had such a huge and meaningful impact on people’s lives. And it was especially gratifying to work in Greensboro, a town I thought I’d live in for just the two years it would take me to complete a graduate degree. When I applied to VISTA, I said on my application that I’d go anywhere they wanted to place me, because I thought I needed to experience another part of the country. It turned out I found that other part of the country six blocks away from my student apartment. I met people I never would have met in my safe, simple academic world. And I don’t just mean people like Tom, but also people who cared enough to volunteer, and business leaders who understood that by investing in Reading Connections, they were investing not only in improving workers’ skills and their quality of life, but also in the health of our community.
I served with VISTA from 1994-1995 as Reading Connections’ community awareness coordinator. Then I stayed on part time for another year, continuing to help with awareness and fundraising. The experience helped me to develop so many useful skills, which prepared me for later work in public relations as well as in writing (I am the author of a novel, High Strung, and a story collection, Bulletproof Girl, which was released in April 2005; both from imprints of Simon & Schuster). At Reading Connections, I learned how to write a press release and to pitch media for coverage of events and agency successes. I learned how to plan fundraising events, from invitations to table arrangements. I learned how to speak in front of many kinds of groups, tailoring our message to their interests. I learned how to write grants, and in one year helped to raise $55,000, nearly half of Reading Connections’ operating expenses at the time.
But most importantly, I learned about the courage it took for adults who had lived with the secret handicap of illiteracy to seek help, the commitment it took for them to improve their skills when they were already stretched between work and family, and the joy of accomplishment when they began to reach their goals—learning how to manage their own bank accounts, to fill out job paperwork, to read stories to their children. Really, the kinds of things most of us do every day without thinking about it.
When the students were honored at our annual awards dinner, which was held in the spring toward the end of my VISTA year, I can’t tell you how proud I was of them and of myself for just knowing them. Their stories had galvanized a part of our community, and 10 years later, Reading Connections continues to serve hundreds of students every year. In the end, I learned that what I loved best about reading—the story—is the most important thing to all of us.