Out of the Shadows, Overcoming Illiteracy

Roger Vredenburg, a one-time maintenance worker, remembers the day he was forced to confront his illiteracy.

"Well, it was real difficult because I lost a job that I had been working for a long time," he said. "They come and they found out I couldn't read so they told me I had to go back to my old job and that was really a heartbreaking experience, I mean it was a real traumatic experience."

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Click HERE to read Part 1 of this series, and HERE for a list of literacy resources.

Vredenburg realized he needed help, but sharing his secret was gut wrenching.

"It's like [an] alcoholic, smoking, anything like that," he said. "Anything you've got to face up to admit you're doing to make changes. It was a difficult thing to do."

"The most difficult part about that whole thing was humiliating myself now to the point where I could call" a literacy program. "I mean I had their number for a week before I gave them a call and I debated and debated — and in fact when I went up there for the first interview, I walked down the hallway almost to the door, and turned around and walked back to the elevator, and then I said well, I gone this far so I might just well go in and see what they can do."

The Plainfield, Mich., resident's experience is hardly unique. In nearby Grand Rapids, a city of 184,000, one out of every five residents has difficulty reading or cannot read at all.

"If people cannot read in our community, how can our community be viable and survive?" said Susan Ledy, executive director of the Literacy Center of West Michigan. "We have to help each other make sure we are 100 percent literate."

"It's really the root cause of many issues," she added. "And if we can solve the problem at the root cause level, think of all the changes that we'll make in terms of crime, economics, poverty. It really is so intertwined with all of those issues."

So the city, using federal grants and local donations, made a pledge to cut illiteracy in half in 10 years. Today, an intensive reading program is under way, with tutors and adult learners meeting one on one at libraries, churches and schools.

In Grand Rapids, community participation is the key. In a recent training session, a group of 50 volunteers trained to become tutors to help those who have difficulty reading and writing.

So far nearly 300 residents have volunteered their time to teach, and the program has helped more than 1,000 people in the last four years.

Michelle Downer decided to volunteer with the Literacy Center of West Michigan once she learned there was so much need.

"Reading is like food," Downer said. "You can't have, you can't live without either of those. Not truly to live."

"It's been very rewarding. I can't tell you. I look forward every week to work with my student, every week," she added. "There is nothing more satisfying to see a student, somebody that … wants to learn, somebody that gives their all every week."

Christine Villanueva is one of those students.

"At first it was really embarrassing that I couldn't do things but Michelle was really patient with me and that, that was one big important thing for me, was that she had the patience to take the time," Villanueva said.

As a child, Villanueva had a medical condition that caused her to miss a lot of school, so she's thankful for a second chance to learn.

"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.