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Posted on Thu, Sep 17, 2009 : 1 p.m.

Act locally to address our state's devastating illiteracy rate

By Lynda James-Gilboe

As the number of manufacturing jobs continues to erode in Michigan, we’re uncovering an alarming problem that -- if left unchecked - will sabotage our State’s future. Not only are workers losing jobs, many are discovering they are ill-equipped for new employment.

Recent statewide statistics show a third of Michigan adults lack basic reading skills… skills that are now essential to land a job that can support a family. That’s a crippling illiteracy rate for a state that wants to compete in a new economy.

Here in Washtenaw County, it’s estimated that 12% of our residents are illiterate. That means nearly 30,000 of our neighbors are locked out of the job market. It’s an economic drain for our entire community: illiteracy is a root cause of crime, poverty and even health problems. More frightening is that illiteracy is a cycle; half the children of illiterate parents will also be illiterate. Viewed from any angle - from humanitarian to economic - it’s a distressing picture.

But our county is lucky enough to be the home of Washtenaw Literacy, one of the largest, most successful literacy agencies in the state. This remarkable nonprofit serves Washtenaw citizens for free, providing them with the skills they need to join in a knowledge-based economy, rather than watch it from behind. Its time-tested program—which matches adult learners with trained volunteers who provide individual and group tutoring in reading and writing skills -- holds an impressive success rate: more than 90% of the adults in these programs reach at least one of their goals.

With the economic downturn and resulting fresh competition for jobs, Washtenaw Literacy is seeing demand for its services accelerate dramatically and it’s time for each of us to step in to help. The group eagerly accepts new volunteer tutors, training them to work with the adult learners who need their guidance, as well as other behind-the-scenes workers whose volunteer efforts help the organization run smoothly. No time? A nominal donation can be put to powerful use: $10 purchases a deck of flash cards or a literacy workbook and $100 covers the cost of a group tutoring session. In the business community, imagine what could be accomplished with a workplace campaign designed to spur volunteerism or donations.

This is a time for all of us to step up to the task of building a stronger Michigan economy. That means more than shopping locally and buying “Michigan,” it means enabling a more vibrant workforce by helping the most vulnerable of our neighbors succeed in a new economic era. If you can read the text on Washtenaw Literacy’s web site (, help eradicate illiteracy in our community -- become a tutor, raise some funds, get involved. Michigan needs everyone to succeed.

Lynda James-Gilboe is senior vice president for marketing and customer care for ProQuest, Ann Arbor. She is on the board of directors for Washtenaw Literacy.


Martin Friedburg

Tue, Sep 22, 2009 : 5:15 p.m.

What's hard to believe about 12%? The national average is around 15%. But whatever the percentage, there are thousands of people in Washtenaw County who are in crisis because they lack literacy skills. Imagine not being able to read the label on the bottle of drugs your physician prescribed. Imagine not being able to fill out a job application. How's your self-esteem when your child or grandchild asks you to read a bedtime story to him/her, and you can't do it? Rather than quibble about percentages, why not do something positive and volunteer for Washtenaw Literacy's program? It's simple to look up the number in the phone book -- for those who can read.

Nicola Rooney

Sat, Sep 19, 2009 : 3:17 p.m.

Washtenaw Literacy has been helping individual learners for over 35 years, and has helped many people on to new careers, or to be able to read to their children. The organization is remarkably efficiently run, in part because of wonderful support from a large number of volunteers, but funds are sorely needed to keep up with demand for services at the moment.

Ed Kimball

Fri, Sep 18, 2009 : 7:14 a.m.

In this context, "illiterate" does not mean totally unable to read or write. Rather it means lacking the reading and writing skills needed to function fully in every day life, such as the workplace, government offices, restaurants, etc. Many people considered illiterate in this sense can read at an elementary school level, but have difficulty understanding a newspaper or written instructions. In this sense, it is true that roughly 12% of our residents (about 27,000 people in Washtenaw County) are illiterate. Volunteer to work with a literacy organization and you can start meeting them.


Thu, Sep 17, 2009 : 11:01 p.m.

I can believe the 12%. Once you're outside of Ann Arbor, much of the county is rural and/or less priviledged and far less educated. Just think of downtown Ypsilanti or the farms out in Manchester. Ten years ago, working in a local pharmacy, I helped a man pick out greeting cards every couple weeks. He couldn't read, but he didn't look any different from you or me. He was even lucky enough to have a good job in a Canton restaurant. I think of him from time to time and hope he's surviving the economic down turn.