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Lovingly dedicated to literacy

Tracy Diina was 18 when, as a volunteer, she took up the cause of literacy. Since then, the 39-year-old advocate has worked to become executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo & Erie County. Diina leads a force of 400 volunteers whose mission is to reduce Buffalo's higher-than-average rate of illiteracy. Diina, as you will see, is all about words -- and statistics.

>Do you have a favorite word?

I like melodrama -- the way it sounds and its meaning.

>Do you remember when words began to make sense to you?

It was a Winnie the Pooh book, and yes it was a great feeling. I'm watching my daughter now, who is almost 5. It's amazing. I see the light bulbs going off.

>How bad is the illiteracy rate in Buffalo?

Ten percentage points higher than the national average. Nationally, the rate is 20 percent functional illiteracy, which means reading at or below a fifth-grade reading level. A lot of times, it's tied to poverty. The poorer the city, the more illiteracy it has. The Bronx has a 46 percent functional illiteracy rate.

>How many people have you helped to read?

Indirectly, thousands. Directly? About 15.

>Is detachment tough?

I'm terrible at detachment. I take it all way too personally. I can't not take it personally, because you see the effects illiteracy has on people. It makes you want to help them in every way.

>Did you think you would be doing this for a living?

No. I wanted to be president, and then I wanted to be an English professor. I wanted to work in politics, but fighting for this particular cause mattered to me. Everyone should be able to read.

>Is there any other issue that you feel as strongly about?

Maybe legalizing drugs, which is probably unconventional and perhaps politically incorrect.

>What makes you such a good advocate?

I believe this [literacy] issue is the key to everything, including our region's economic prosperity. In Buffalo, only 46 percent of people finish high school.

>What's the problem?

In the '80s there was a movement toward eradicating illiteracy, and then it was pushed aside when AIDS came to the forefront. Sometimes it is forgotten, and I think the wisest leader would pay attention to it as a way to grow.

>How far will you go?

Well, I had a rally once in front of county hall. We probably only had 15 people there, but it really angered the county executive at the time, [Joel] Giambra. It made him an enemy of us, even though I tried to make amends. When I think about it, I cringe, but we shouldn't have had our funding cut. Seventy-six percent of welfare recipients are illiterate. If we want to get people off welfare, they need to become literate. Here's another statistic: Sixty percent of low-income homes have no books in them.

>Give me an example of what Literacy Volunteers has accomplished.

We give new books to every new mom who has a baby in Western New York. It's called "Ready, Set, Parent." We give them "Goodnight Moon" with a wrapper around it that asks: "When should you start reading to your child?" And you open it up and it says, "Right now." It has a library card application as well.

>Who is your oldest student?

Miss Nellie is in her 80s, and she comes to us every day, just not in winter, because the weather is so bad. She's from down south, and she never went to school because they wouldn't let her. Her husband did all her reading for her.

>Tell me a personal success story.

I helped a student register to vote and then I took him to vote, and that was great because we learned about different political parties. He was almost 50 years old, and that happens a lot. Unfortunately the person he voted for did not win, but I told him to get used to it.


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