Now more than ever, everyone needs to read, says the Kalamazoo Literacy Council

March 12: Michael Evans, executive director of the Kalamazoo Literacy Council, greeted me at their offices with a firm handshake.

March 13: A hand sanitizer greeted me, with a sign requiring use before entering the lobby. Then Dorothy Kemp, a tutor for the KLC, gave me an India-style hands-together bow. "I guess this is how we do it now!" she says, laughing.

The world changed quickly while we put together this story. It was going to be about the KLC's fundraising Scrabble tournament, plus their efforts to improve adult literacy.

But due to COVID-19, the tournament is postponed, and the Kalamazoo Literacy Council is trying to find new ways to help adults gain literacy skills without face-to-face interaction.



Evans was making the decisions while we met. This year would be the tenth for the Scrabble tournament, which has gone from "a little thing, now it's at the Radisson Plaza," he says. 

But to slow the spread of the virus, such gatherings just can't happen. He sounds disappointed but determined when he says, "It's not canceled, it's postponed!"

Evans is disappointed, but he has bigger worries. The virus "is impacting our daily adult learning services." 

KLC has 15 literacy centers, sites where tutors and adult learners meet. They are in such places as the Kalamazoo Public Library, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and various other locations from community centers to churches. By mid-March, all were in the process of closing for the duration.

"It wasn't even like that yesterday," he says. "Wow, what do you do when you have something that's like a global pandemic, impacting a community that you love? And we work in a business of people," he says. 

"We have to make sure our learners are safe, our volunteers are safe, and we can do the best we can to guide people to when and where they can study with us." 

Literacy in a time of crisis

The Kalamazoo Literacy Council is working on ways to keep to their mission. "We're making sure that people can still learn with us, online or otherwise," Evans says.

To function in society it is vitally important for citizens to be able to read. Society getting hit by a pandemic is providing a vivid example. 

"We're right in the midst of it -- there's quite a few people who can't read those notices about what you should do in these current circumstances. Think about the people who can't read and independently navigate these uncertain times," Evans says.

There are those who can't fill out forms at a doctor's office. They can't read the directions for medication. Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, private insurance -- finding help for healthcare costs is bewildering enough for those who can read. 

"Everyone needs to read to manage their health, so literacy is at the root of healthcare," Evans says.

Even without the needs being reinforced by the coronavirus literacy is critical for community members. 

Evans says it's vital to "workforce development because everybody needs to read to get a job." 

How can one write a resume? How can one get a driver's license? Read their mail, their bills? "Or even to be able to vote?" Evans asks.

How can one read to their children? Evans points out that, "early childhood education begins at home with a mom or dad, or uncle or someone, who could read.... For adults, who are leading households, who lack those skills, their children are likely to repeat that cycle," he says.  

"Literacy is part of everything we do, and there are 25,000 adults (in Kalamazoo County), 18 and over, who struggle to read. That's about 13% of our population in Kalamazoo County." 

The Kalamazoo Literacy Council also provides English-as-a-Second-Language services. Many ESL learners are international students. When WMU and K-College closed, it was a big deal, Evans says.

"We have people from all over the globe, it's like the United Nations, they come to our ESL program, and the enrollment for today's instruction was way down." 

We're all learners, we're all teachers 

Even without a public health threat, it can be difficult to get people to take that step back into learning, long after they've left school behind. Evans says the Kalamazoo Literacy Council fights the image that this is "preschool for adults," and are "very, very against" labeling a person "illiterate."

"We say, 'you are learning, and we are learning with you.'"

We're all learners, Evans says. He points out his own experience with his oldest son, born on the autism spectrum. "I had to learn a lot of things that I had no idea of," he says. "I was functionally illiterate in understanding my own son."

His son grew to love classical music and joined the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony. Evans, who loves metal and harder, thrashier sounds, had never imagined going to a classical concert, but he went to see his son perform. 

Evans remembers the orchestra director announcing to the audience "'today we're going to explore the ethnomusicological history of Shostakovich,' and I know nothing about what it's like. When they play the music what he said does not match my expectations. I'm clapping at the wrong times. I want to say 'That's my kid!' but that's not what you're supposed to do."

It can be embarrassing being in such a situation, but, "The point is, all of us can be functionally illiterate if not given the right support and guidance to understand how to be there." 

Helping people grow

We're all learners, and we're all teachers, tutor Dorothy Kemp says.

She's learned other languages from hosting exchange students and traveling to Europe. She learned a lot about the mind while volunteering as a reader for a sightless psychology student at WMU. She's also taught new nurses when she worked as an RN at Community Hospital in Watervliet. 

As a parent, "we have been teachers to these children. I've enjoyed watching my little girl grow up, who will soon be 60 -- she wouldn't want me to say that!" she says with a laugh.

Kemp is 84, and doesn't want to stop teaching. She's a tutor for the Kalamazoo Literacy Council.

"I always like to keep involved, to help people grow in whatever way they can," she says.

She's bothered by poor grammar coming from young people and finds herself correcting them. "I only do that in my own family -- I don't bother anyone else's children!" Kemp says with a laugh. "I even do that to my grownup friends sometimes. I think they don't really like it, but it's too bad!"

It's troubling to Kemp that someone may be in her church unable to read onscreen hymns or announcements. "I wonder if there's somebody back there who looks at this and sees something completely foreign. How terrible!" 

Ten years ago Kemp began with the KLC as a "friendly connector," a person who matches learners with students. She then started tutoring. 

She remembers a woman in the process of getting a divorce, raising a child, needing to get a job. There was a senior woman who had her GED but "she felt she was pushed through," Kemp says."This helped her a lot." 

Kemp worked with a man in his 80s who'd earned his GED yet enjoyed the process of learning. "I said to Mike (Evans), 'What can we do? He comes every week, sometimes he doesn't do any homework, and we're really not making much progress.'" So they presented him with a certificate of completion. "He was so happy and proud. We took pictures of it. And he passed away maybe six months later. His wife called me and said they really appreciated the fact that we spent that much time with him." 

Lately, Kemp's been working with two women in their 20s from Peru. One is an attorney in her home country, the other has an engineering degree. "I can only imagine how they feel -- they're reduced to third and fourth grade English, and they're so powerful where they came from," she says. 

"This isn't easy. If you haven't done any studying or reading for 10, 20 years, this is difficult, like starting back in kindergarten." Learners are able to work at their own pace, but they are assigned reading and homework. It can be a burden on top of jobs and other adult duties, she says.

"These two girls I have now, they're going to be a success, there's no doubt about that. I love it when they're motivated to that point where they won't give up."

Her "girls" from Peru have shared concerns with her about the virus, so Kemp, as of March 13, told them to put their face-to-face meetings on hold. "I will tell them to study. I will tell them to call me to make sure that we can do something by phone, and we'll keep that going." 

Evans is determined to keep people teaching and learning in this time of COVID-19. He wonders, could this crisis last into the late spring, into the summer? "For us, gaps in learning are bad for our learners, just like it's bad for kids, so we'll try to make sure there are services available in a variety of modes." 

He has been involved with many nonprofits, "but this is the one cause that I've found where you could make a permanent solution happen in someone's life. You can fall in and out of poverty, you could fall in and out of a job, in and out of health, but I don't know many people who would fall in and out of literacy."

Update: Any Time, Any Where, Any Way

The week of March 16 Evans sent out the announcement that the KLC is going all-virtual, for now.

"The KLC has established a Distance Learning Network, with support from the Regional Prosperity Initiative and our partners at the Van Buren Intermediate School District, to provide learning Any Time, Any Where, Any Way. The KLC Virtual Learning Center serves as the hub for all distance learning opportunities provided by our organization. Classes, tutoring sessions, navigation support, and a variety of self-paced learning options are available to every learner with access to a digital device. We are grateful to have the capacity to reach learners and provide options for them to continue and expand upon their learning."

The KCL also moved staff to a virtual environment, so they could work from home.

"Despite our current challenges, we are committed to forging through this global event and are optimistic we will be better educators and learners as a result," Evans writes. 

Update 2: Coronavirus for Literacy and Language Learners 

The Kalamazoo Literacy Council is offering classes to teach learners, tutors and anyone who wants to better understand how to manage through the crisis, the lessons, and language they will need as COVID-19 spreads. The invitation to would-be participants reads: “With such unprecedented circumstances affecting the globe, everyone deserves to understand the facts to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe.”

After completing this lesson, learners will be able to:

1. Speak, read, and write the vocabulary needed to understand recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

2) Explain and act on the CDC recommendations using the "Stop the Spread" poster.

3) Develop a plan for themselves and their families to avoid contracting the virus.

4) Recognize the most reliable sources for information on the illness.

The four-week class will be led by Doris Ravotas, Ph.D., beginning on Friday, March 27, April 3, April 10, and April 17 from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

This forum will be held online, via WebEx. Learners can sign up for the forum here

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.
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