By Tara Schafer
We were happy to hear the recent announcement that a local nonprofit partnering with AARP will train volunteers as literacy tutors to provide extra reading help to youths in Buffalo elementary schools. This initiative serves a needed gap in our community.
However, all too often we see the spotlight shone on youth literacy efforts – which we certainly agree are critical – yet our region’s adults are left in the dark. Illiteracy is truly a family issue, affecting parent and child, sadly becoming intergenerational in many instances.
Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara has been serving the Buffalo/Niagara region for 51 years by assisting adults with literacy challenges. As our economy grows and with Buffalo’s 30 percent illiteracy rate higher than the national average, now more than ever we need to address this issue. If a parent struggles to read, it is likely that his or her child will as well. Major risk factors for low levels of literacy are having a mother without a high school education, living in a single-parent family and/or living in poverty.
These factors affect tens of thousands of children in our region. Sixty-one percent of low-income homes have no books in them. Or put it this way: 61 percent of poor kids have absolutely no books. This is unbelievable and unacceptable.
Literacy tutors in schools will certainly help these kids, but we need to do better. Helping parents learn to read and/or learn to speak English better will have a far-reaching impact, now and in generations to come. Parents are key reading role models. The more value placed on reading in a household, the better students are prepared to be successful in school and in life.
Increasing parental literacy will help children in many other ways. When adults improve their literacy skills, their children have fewer nutrition and health problems, drop out of school less, have fewer teen pregnancies, less joblessness and less social alienation. Literacy programs also significantly reduce welfare dependence.
Our agency’s most recent initiative – launching this fall – is a series of literacy drop-in centers to provide immediate convenient, neighborhood-based locations for easy access by adults. Literacy drop-in centers are safe places for adults to confront their difficulty in reading and literacy anonymously. Our project is a perfectly timed complement to the new Buffalo youth literacy initiative. Both parents and their children can be simultaneously served.
We will continue to advocate for a comprehensive regional strategy that promotes literacy within the context of family and community. Through helping our adult students, you are helping their children, their families and society, too.
Tara Schafer is executive director of Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara.