Durham Literacy Center honors its volunteers

After an accident and the need for medical care, Essoetche “George” Ebia came to Durham from his native Togo in West Africa. Ebia is now in his second semester of the Durham Literacy Center’s advanced classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages.

His ambition is to improve his English so he can study agriculture at N.C. State University and someday create a non-profit organization that will allow American farmers to share knowledge with farmers in Togo. “College demands high level skills. ... I know I need better English,” Ebia said during a speech at the Durham Literacy Center’s 10th annual Leaders in Literacy breakfast. “My neighbors and friends tell me I speak better, and I think I do. Yes?” The audience applauded to his question.

“I hope you understood me well enough to know how much [the Durham Literacy Center] means to students like me,” Ebia said.

The annual breakfast honors students, volunteers, businesses and community groups that support the center’s programs. They include classes in Adult Literacy, a Youth Education Program, computer literacy and GED preparation.

This year’s Leader in Literacy Award was given to the volunteers “who make our organization thrive,” said Lizzie Ellis-Furlong, executive director of the Literacy Center. “We were started by volunteers, and we are still dependent on volunteers,” she said. The center now has more than 200 volunteers who teach in the center’s programs, Ellis-Furlong said. John Hope Franklin, Mary Semans, RTI and SunTrust Bank are among past recipients of the award.

The audience observed a moment of silence for two past award winners who died last year. Mary Whaley Paul was a founder of the Durham Literacy Center, which began in 1985. Barbara Newborg began volunteering with the organization after retiring from a 40-year career in medicine. She established the BIN Charitable Foundation to support literacy and other charitable causes. Ellis-Furlong said that when she first met Newborg, she was in her 80s, had broken her hip, and used a walker. Newborg was “a true changemaker in the Durham community,” Ellis-Furlong said.

Keynote speaker Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University, told the audience “the greatest story I’ve ever heard about literacy,” the story of how anti-slavery advocate, newspaper editor and author Frederick Douglass learned to read. When Douglass was a slave, his owner sent him to the family of Hugh and Sophie Auld in Baltimore, where he worked in a shipyard. Sophie Auld began teaching Douglass the alphabet, but her husband disapproved, telling Sophie that if slaves were taught to read, they might start asking questions.

For Douglass, that moment was “the turning point of his life,” Brodhead said. Douglass understood that “deprivation of the ability to read and write was also deprivation of freedom,” Brodhead said.

Brodhead, a professor of literature, extolled the historical wonders of reading. Humans are the only creatures who can leave a record of their past, he said. Through reading, “we can enter into the whole suffering of human kind,” he said. “The power of literacy gives us so many other powers.”

He praised the Literacy Center for its work. “I cannot think of a more inspiring example of generosity” than passing along literacy to those who do not have it, he said.