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Adams Elementary School students do some pre-book fair shopping. The ability to read – and everything that skill allows us to do – is taken for granted by most of us. Working with those who cannot read offers a sobering perspective.

Struggles of others inspire a career

In June I began an internship at the Literacy Alliance, a local non-profit organization with adult education programs.

One of the roles that I was to fulfill was to write stories for the organization’s newsletter, chronicling the trials and triumphs of students.

It was surprising to discover that I had some misconceptions about people who struggle with reading. When those misconceptions were actually confronted while interviewing students, however, my perception changed.

It’s sort of like hearing about problems in Africa or the Mideast. It’s far away. It’s not me. No one I know is there and I’m never going, so I don’t have to think about it.

Being able to read and write well has always been something I have taken for granted. I never thought what it would be like to struggle with this necessity.

Even today, low literacy is a poorly understood or ignored problem in America. I had never really known anyone who struggled with reading, and it’s easy to perceive this group as being somehow less capable or lacking in drive. As it turns out, this could not have been further from the truth.

One person I came in contact with at the Literacy Alliance raised a family, supervised people at her job and was highly involved in her church, all while reading at a fourth-grade level. After taking classes her life has been positively affected, and she is now able to prepare the ushers’ schedule at her church. She also put together care packages that helped more than 100 children obtain school supplies.

Another individual I spoke with who showed similar grit left school in the eighth grade but always managed to remain employed and independent. His greatest joy now is being able to open up and read The Journal Gazette, a paper he has helped produce for 15 years at Fort Wayne Newpapers’ warehouse.

Many who struggle with literacy possess learning disabilities that come in numerous varieties, including how brains, ears or eyes perceive and process information. Some of these individuals, however, develop tremendous coping skills to help compensate and in fact work harder to get by than the average person. They are able to hold down jobs, raise families and serve valuable roles in their communities in spite of this challenge.

These student experiences have helped motivate me to work in literacy when I graduate.

The Literacy Alliance staff is a highly passionate group that works hard toward a common mission they believe in. Seeing firsthand how much people are affected by gaining these skills gives them a sense of satisfaction. Students are benefitted not only by improving abilities with reading, computer competence and math – which translates into improving their educational and career opportunities – but also growing in self-confidence and joy. This often inspires students to share skills or to help inspire others in their community.

Matthew Behnke, a student at IPFW, recently completed an internship at The Literacy Alliance. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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