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VOL. 127 | NO. 45 | Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Literacy Focus of Memphis Campaign

By Aisling Maki

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Memphian Beverly Fletcher was a grandmother before her family and friends became aware she couldn’t read.

Fletcher took the stage Friday, March 2, to share her story with more than 200 people during Literacy Mid-South’s Campaign for Literacy Luncheon – an event to raise funds and awareness and recruit new advocates and volunteers.

The event was held in conjunction with Read Across America – a national day on which millions of readers around the country share their love of reading with children – held annually on the birthday of the late Dr. Seuss, whose books have introduced many children to the joy of reading.

But there was no “The Cat in the Hat” or “Green Eggs and Ham” in Fletcher’s childhood. When she was 5 years old – an age at which many children begin reading – her grandmother and father died within two weeks of each other. Her mother became an alcoholic, and Fletcher and her siblings were removed from their mother’s custody and placed in a children’s home.

Fletcher was moved to the Shelby Forest area, where she attended E.E. Jeter Elementary School and lived with an abusive teacher.

“I was told I was dumb, retarded, could not learn anything – that I had a few brainwaves that were messed up,” Fletcher said. “When I picked up a book, I would get in trouble. She told me she got me to be her maid.”

Fletcher quit school at 14, was married by 17 and had two children.

Despite her inability to read, Fletcher managed to run her own business and raise children who graduated from college and began successful careers.

“I’ve always worked – I’ve owned a business, been a manager, built motors for 10 years,” Fletcher said. “Boy, it was hard not knowing how to read.”

Her story is all too common in Memphis, where about 120,000 people don’t know how to read, Literacy Mid-South executive director Kevin Dean told luncheon guests Friday.

“It’s a big number, and it’s a scary number,” Dean said. “About one in five people in this town cannot read or are functionally illiterate to the point where they can’t do things for themselves like fill out a job application, read prescription bottles – things like that. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the (2010) census came out that said one in five Memphians is living in poverty either. I think there’s definitely a correlation there.”

Literacy Mid-South is a nonprofit dedicated to maximizing the impact of child and adult literacy and learning through advocacy, research, family literacy workshops and resource development.

The organization is the result of a 2010 merger between literacy advocate organization Mid-South Reads and Memphis Literacy Council, which provided specialized programs to teach people reading and life skills.

Literacy Mid-South each year provides basic education for more than 500 low-literate adults at its office, 902 S. Cooper St., and other locations throughout the city. The organization’s Family Literacy Program, which teaches parents how to build a supportive literacy environment in the home, works with about 1,200 families annually.

Student Loretta Rais and husband Charlie, a retired truck driver, have been attending classes at Literacy Mid-South for several years now.

“Because of you, I can read to my little granddaughter,” Loretta Rais told luncheon guests when she took the podium Friday. “She is 3 years old. She gets her little book and I can sit her down in my lap, and we have a good time. … I thank the Lord and the people who are behind this – the teachers, the tutors. We can’t hardly wait to get there because we know we’re going to learn something. It helps us to take care of our business better. When you can read better, you understand things better.”

Literacy Mid-South also leads the Literacy Mid-South Coalition, a collaboration of nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions and government agencies working to promote reading and lifelong learning in the region. The coalition offers training for literacy programs, brown-bag lunches for tutors and monthly meetings for service providers.

“We really want to get other organizations involved,” Dean told the audience Friday. “If you’re part of another organization here in the room, I ask that you commit to joining our coalition today. It would be wonderful to add you to our roster so that we can give you the resources that we have.”

The Daily News Publishing Co. Inc. is a supporter of Literacy Mid-South.

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