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WORLD FOCUS: Literacy for life

December 10, 2015
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

There is program that, if adopted, in cooperation with North Country Community College and the Adirondack Medical Center could be beneficial for the whole area.

"Literacy for Life," the adult learning center at the College of William & Mary, originally called Adult Skills Program, was founded 40 years ago. It has become a "force for good" in the community.

Faculty members at William & Mary as well as concerned local citizens in 1975 recognized an urgent need for an adult literacy program to develop reading and writing skills for college employees, and later to adult learners in the greater Williamsburg area.

The Center for many years was housed in the basement of one of the dormitories. When the new, modern School of Education was built, Literacy for Life found home there, in a wing of the school that provides spacious, airy classrooms, equipped with the latest electronic teaching tools.

What makes "Literacy for Life" so effective and valuable, said Joan Peterson, in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette, are not just the technical tools. It is primarily the one-on-one tutoring provided by more than 300 volunteers, serving more than 700 adult learners annually.

Peterson, the executive director of the Center since 2008, is determined to fulfill the vision that started four decades ago.

"I continuously have my eye on current needs in Williamsburg, as well as what the future will bring," she said.

She has dramatically increased the number of people served by the programs having more than quadrupled the number of instructional hours delivered from around 5,000 to 25,000, and added programs, such as Workplace Readiness, to meet the community's changing needs.

In a survey conducted by ProLiteracy, an international literary organization, William & Mary's Literacy for Life earned a rating that placed it in the top tier among 445 literacy organizations. It is among the top 3 percent of number of instructors, the top 6 percent for budget size and the top 9 percent of the number of students served.

Now, under Peterson's leadership, Literacy for Life has moved to the forefront of adult health literacy programs on the national level. "We are developing procedural manuals and are professionally packaging our health literacy curriculum so that it can be made available in other communities across the country," she said.

The importance of Health Literacy, the ability to understand basic health information and the services to make appropriate decisions become obvious if one considers the fact, low health literacy affects more adult Americans than obesity, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and breast cancer combined. Statistics show that health literacy is a stronger predictor of an individual's health status than income, education level or belonging to a racial or ethnic group.

"Working with Literacy for Life opened my eyes to the enormous problem of low literacy and to what degree it exists here in the greater Williamsburg area," Peterson said. "Low literacy does not stand alone. It is the root of many other social struggles, all of which have great economic impact on individuals and our community as a whole."

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, there are nearly 3,500 adults in Williamsburg and James City County, and more than 100,000 in Hampton Roads, with below basic literacy, meaning they struggle to read simple instructions or complete common forms.

Literacy for Life, providing classes and individual tutoring in basic reading, writing, math, ESL and health literacy, is set to change those numbers.

Peterson, who was the past president of the Virginia Literacy Leadership Council, and now serves on the Virginia Institute for Lifelong Learning Board, is hard at work to communicate to neighborhood organizations, hospital systems and businesses, "Our services are available to those in Williamsburg that could benefit from them."


Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette. Shatz is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.



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