Library cuts, layoffs hurt successful literacy program

When adults know how to read and write they have the power to transform their lives. This is why, with all the issues on which Miami-Dade County’s mayor and commissioners need to focus, adult literacy should be at the top of their list. Literacy is the most basic employable skill, the essential element of economic development and living-wage jobs.

I know firsthand about the fine program established in 1985 in the Miami-Dade Public Library System, Project LEAD Miami-DadeLiteracy for Every Adult in Dade. Since then, thousands of people have benefitted.

I enrolled in the training program in 2011 to become a volunteer tutor. The LEAD library staff — overworked and underpaid — was impressive in its commitment to the cause of providing free tutoring to the 52 percent of illiterate adults in Miami-Dade — a shockingly high number. The large training sessions for would-be tutors, recruited by the staff, demonstrated an ideal population of literacy advocates by age, ethnicity, race, gender and socioeconomic diversity.

I was matched with a young single mother. She sought assistance from Project LEAD because she was touched by The Children’s Trust public-awareness campaign informing parents about essential elements for having healthy children. What spoke to her was the necessity of reading to her little boy, and she could not read.

I deeply respect the courage it takes for an illiterate adult to come forward and say, “I need help — I cannot read and write.” The stigma is too much for many people to bear. This young women was abused and discarded by adults around her. She ran away from home at a young age, became pregnant and suffered the crushing lack of self-esteem that always comes with such experiences.

But she is a kind, good and loving mother to her son — I have observed this relationship for three years. Concern for his welfare drove her to the Project LEAD opportunity provided by the public library.

The library provided me with all the teaching and student learning materials I needed to tutor my adult learner through completion of the four program sections. I awarded my beaming student four completion certificates. Her skills have vastly improved, not just because of me, but because she is smart, driven to improve herself and fierce about creating opportunity for her son. Learning to read and write — even at a minimal level — has given her the hope she craves and deserves.

Fortunately my student entered Project LEAD before it was gutted by lack of funding. Over time, the staff was reduced to a miniscule level. Recruitment and training fell off, materials became scarce and, finally, a system-wide layoff drastically reduced library operating hours. We tutors and our students around the county were deeply affected because we meet in the perfect and neutral space of public libraries two or three times a week to maintain a constant focus on learning. I was meeting my student in the South Dade Regional Library when opening hours two days a week were changed from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. She had to be at her job site in the afternoons, so now two mornings a week for learning were unavailable.

Miami-Dade needs a work force that can sustain itself. Nothing is more essential than the ability to read and write. It really only takes a community of electors and elected officials to recognize that we can help ourselves by doing the right thing for Project LEAD and our public libraries.

They are much more than the stacks of books that we have loved and taken for granted. Libraries also hold the key to the future through community service, as well as the support and outreach to people who need the evolving resources skillfully provided — if we would only adequately fund them.

Susan Vodicka is a volunteer with the public library.