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VOL. 126 | NO. 158 | Monday, August 15, 2011

Literacy Mid-South Aims to Combat Local Illiteracy

By Aisling Maki

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Literacy Mid-South executive director Kevin Dean and his staff stay busy spreading the word about the identity and mission of the nonprofit organization, the result of a merger last year between Memphis Literacy Council and Mid-South Reads.

“Mid-South Reads was advocating for literacy, and Memphis Literacy Council had specialized programs that helped certain groups of people,” said Dean, who stepped into his role in May, having previously served as development director for Hope House of Memphis. “Mid-South Reads focused a lot on children, so now we’re focused on people of all ages. We’re trying to create lifelong learners.”

Dean and his team are working to streamline goals, enhance efficiencies and adjust staff roles to ensure improved operational and financial outcomes. They’re also making a pronounced effort to reintroduce the organization to the community.

On Thursday, Literacy Mid-South hosted a roomful of local executives, media professionals, and current and former board members in hopes of recruiting some prominent Memphians to help spread the word about the issue of local illiteracy.

Between 20 and 30 percent of adults in the Memphis metropolitan area are functionally illiterate, which affects every aspect of their lives – from finding sustainable employment to taking charge of their health and the health of their families to having the capacity to assert their legal rights.

“There’s so much blame out in the community about how people got to Literacy Mid-South or why they can’t read, and we forget that this is a generational cycle and that getting out of poverty is incredibly hard,” Dean said. “What I find thrilling is that our students call us; they have to make the phone call themselves. They want to be here, and they help each other out. It’s an amazing place for them to learn.”

Literacy Mid-South leads the Literacy Mid-South Coalition, a collaborative 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 want to make sure that we’re replicating our program out in the community and that other people have this opportunity because this might not be the most advantageous place for everyone to come,” Dean said. “We want to make sure other programs can do this, and do it just as well.”

Literacy Mid-South each year provides basic education for about 500 low-literate adults at its Midtown office at 902 S. Cooper St., as well as other locations throughout the city.

The organization makes use of more than 250 trained volunteers who provide private and group tutoring during morning and evening sessions.

In addition to the adult-learning program, the organization trains community volunteers for its academy tutoring project, which provides support at five Memphis charter schools.

The organization also helps to increase parent involvement in early childhood learning through its Family Literacy Program, led for many years by Wilson McCloy. The program teaches parents how to build a supportive literacy environment in the home. Working in partnership with schools, early-education programs and social services agencies, Literacy Mid-South leads parent workshops at more than 40 partner sites annually.

Illiteracy and low literacy is proven to impact quality of health, and Literacy Mid-South is partnering with Healthy Memphis Common Table to implement a health care curriculum that will help teach students how to read a prescription bottle and what questions to ask doctors, among other things.

According to statistics from www.proliteracy.org, there’s also a correlation between adult illiteracy and crime. On a national level, more than 45 percent of all inmates in local jails, 40 percent of inmates in state facilities and 27 percent in federal corrections institutions did not graduate from high school.

Literacy Mid-South works with the men in Shelby County Corrections’ Fatherhood Program, a voluntary program for incarcerated men and their partners and children. The program prepares men who have six months to a year before being released, to embrace their role as fathers – which includes the use of reading as quality time spent with their children.

Literacy Mid-South is gearing up for a series of special events, including the Cooper Young Festival Book Sale Sept. 17, a fundraiser that will offer new books at bargain prices.

The organization is also planning a Super Gala that invites attendees to dress as their favorite superheroes and party the night away at Literacy Mid-South’s offices. The evening will include a costume contest, silent auction, food and drink and dancing.

Visit www.literacymidsouth.org to learn more.

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