A passionate crusade to ensure literacy denied no one

I had a fortunate childhood. My home had many books, my parents were devoted readers, and there was opportunity and encouragement from my earliest memories to read voraciously.

Heck, my parents were among maybe half a dozen customers in the small town in northwestern North Carolina where I grew up who subscribed to the Sunday New York Times, which arrived by bus on Tuesday or Wednesday at Lamm’s Drug Store for us to pick up. I’ve read the Times since at least junior high.

As one of the speakers at the Durham Literacy Center’s “Leaders in Literacy” breakfast on Thursday put it, for me literacy came easy. That was even truer for our son, who wasn’t just surrounded with books; he was nearly buried in them. As I’ve said before, my wife, Pat, and I are such book hoarders that we both have a copy of our high school advanced placement history textbook. It’s the same book.

But life is not fair. Many young children grow up in impoverished homes, homes rife with domestic tension, or homes where simply making ends meet in a minimum wage job – or two, or three – leave little time for reading, much less nurturing it. And parents in that circumstance who themselves had little exposure to books or the joy of reading, as much as they care – as virtually all parents do, I believe – about the welfare of their children, may not see reading and literacy as the keystones to life success that they are.

All of that – and more – is why the work of the Durham Literacy Center has been so important since visionary volunteers founded it in the 1980s. This past week, in one of the perks of my job, I had the privilege to attend the center’s annual cheerleading/proselytizing/fundraising breakfast. As always, it was uplifting even while reminding us of the enormous challenge we as a community face.

The truth is, way too many of our neighbors have not had the benefit of immersion in literacy, and the doors of opportunity and enrichment it opens, effortlessly and without a second thought to those of us who have grown up enveloped in it.

For them, as keynote speaker Richard Brodhead, Duke University’s president, put it:

“What does it mean for literacy to be denied? It is the impairment of other human powers.”

In Durham, as we know all too well, “literacy is unequally distributed,” Brodhead said. That “means many other things are unequally distributed.”

This is a solvable problem, although, as Ringo Starr sang, “you know it don’t come easy.”

The literacy center is on a passionate crusade to solve it. They don’t underestimate their impact. “We’re in the life-changing business,” DLC board president Ike Thomas said at Thursday’s breakfast.

The center helps adults who finished public schooling without ever mastering reading, or immigrants whose first language is not English, learn to read, to master English – to thrive in the modern economy. This is not just about warm fuzzy feelings. It is about economic development and community stability.

It is a labor of love. More than 90 percent of its teachers and tutors are volunteers.

Last fiscal year, the center helped more than 800 individuals. “Yet more individuals are knocking on our doors every day,” the center says.

If you want to help, the center would love to hear from you, and you can find out more information, at www.durhamliteracy.org.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.org.