Out of the Shadows, Overcoming Illiteracy

"I'm totally grateful, because when I was younger it was just ignored, and I think there's a lot of people that are like me that can't read and, like I said, it's never too late," she said.

A lifelong Michigan resident, Villanueva learned to read after a divorce.

"My ex-husband was the one that more or less managed everything because I couldn't read, and I had to learn how to manage my bills, learn how to write out a check."

She can now, for the first time, read to her grandchildren.

"I used to pick up the books, and they would be with pictures, and I would look at the pictures and make up my own story out of the books, you know," she recalled, showing visible emotion.

Industries in Grand Rapids have joined in the city's effort to combat the illiteracy epidemic.

Lacks Enterprises, which produces auto parts, decided it was good business to offer literacy training to its employees — both lifelong residents and recent immigrants.

"The demands of our customer are basically to deliver perfect parts on time consistently, and to be able to do that you have to have employees that can read and write and follow work instructions and process documents," said Jim Green, Lacks Enterprises' human resources director.

Green said the company's literacy program has improved productivity, quality and employee retention rates. Workers also are more able to interact socially with their co-workers.

"To be able to communicate with your co-workers and take part in the social aspects of the job, as well as be able to perform your job as required, is essential," Green added.

For some employees the reading program meant a gateway to a better life, and the opportunity to move up in the company.

Cuban immigrant Marvin Riveron spoke very little English when he moved to the United States in August 2006 — only "yes, no, maybe, thanks, please," he said.

"I became a better worker and I started taking a couple of opportunities inside this company," Riveron said, and his supervisor promoted him.

"He trusts in my communication skills," said Riveron, who admits that when he first started at Lacks, he could "barely understand my co-worker[s], my colleagues."

"Once you start, like, speaking the language that is necessary to communicate around you … you feel great because you can do everything by yourself," Riveron beamed.

If someone you know needs help, contact your library, or browse literacy resources HERE.

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