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May 5, 2008

A life changed, one sentence at a time

How United Way investments are helping local residents overcome illiteracy

When West Haven resident Annette Sessions was ten years old and her mother fell ill, she took a job working in a cotton field, earning $3.50 for every 100 pounds of cotton she picked. She continued to work to support her family, eventually started a family of her own and never went back to school.

But because she left school so young, she never learned to read. “My mom felt like education was something you could always go back and pick up,” Annette says. “But taking care of your siblings was needed right away. I was illiterate but not by choice.”

Annette struggled for years to find jobs that didn’t require reading. Annette explains that being illiterate is “like walking around with a 100 pound yoke around your neck, praying that no one will ask you to read something.” When her boss at a coat factory called her “an illiterate,” she didn’t know what the word meant and thought it was a racial slur. He told her he knew she couldn’t read because she couldn’t fill out the paperwork necessary to earn her well-deserved promotion. She left the factory that day determined to change.

She was so determined—and so successful—that other students working to overcome illiteracy are today honored with the “Annette Sessions Student of the Year Award.”

An eager student with a mile-wide smile and a soothing, mellow voice, Annette turned to Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, a funded agency of United Way of Greater New Haven that trains and certifies volunteer tutors to work with adults who need help with basic literacy or English skills.

One of those tutors was Margie Watson, who realized Annette’s immense potential. Within a few years, Annette received her high school diploma and sent a copy of it to her boss at the coat factory. When he offered her a job for $10 per hour, she politely declined. Her career path has instead made her today an extremely effective Community Outreach Coordinator for Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven.

When working with others learning to read, Annette is careful to mention that she was motivated by desire, hope, and drive. Her message to others learning to read is simple. “If you’re tired of being in the closet, of accepting what other people give you and you want to speak up for yourself, call Literacy Volunteers because it has really been an inspiration to me.” Doss Venema, Executive Director of Literacy Volunteers says, “Annette is a determined young woman. She believed in herself. She never says no to a challenge.”

Venema points out that problems with reading are not just for those who have left school like Annette did. The National Adult Literacy Survey estimates that approximately 22%, or 40 to 44 million of the 191 million adults in the United States, “demonstrated skills in the lowest level of prose, document, and quantitative literacy proficiencies.” That population of 40 to 44 million people includes many high school graduates.

Many of those surveyed can read well enough to get by in daily life. For example, they could write a deposit slip at a bank or read dates and times listed on a schedule. But when tested, they could not read and comprehend full paragraphs. Venema says that these people have “simply fallen through the cracks.”

It isn’t easy for most to admit that they can’t read. In fact, Venema says, many people will take great pains to disguise their problem. Annette carried a newspaper under her arm while walking down the street. Others point to a map when asking for directions despite the fact that the map is unintelligible to them. Simply getting by means carefully memorizing directions and names. It also means yielding to others. If a contract needs to be signed, you can’t review its content. “You must settle for someone else telling you the truth,” Venema says. “Someone else must tell you what the contract you’re about to sign says and you have no control.”

Many students at Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven are learning English as a second language. Venema says these students are eager to learn so they can get a job, communicate effectively, and become productive members of their communities.

She described one young woman who was having trouble reading at school, partly because her first language was Spanish and partly because of basic reading problems. This student was shuffled into a bilingual class which didn’t help her because she couldn’t read in Spanish either.

“She kept getting bumped around,” Venema says. “She didn’t get the help she needed.” But at Literacy Volunteers, this student attended weekly one-on-one classes with her certified literacy tutor and ultimately learned to read. Instead of disappearing into the back of a classroom, she finally got the individual attention she needed.

Stories like these only come out of years of hard work by students and tutors. Those who learn to read gain control and confidence they’ve never had. Annette Sessions, who is now writing her autobiography, says, “Set a goal. It can be a six month or 12 month goal. Learn how to read.” Because whether following directions, getting a driver’s license, earning a GED, understanding a doctor’s diagnosis or finding a job, being able to read means the difference between a frightening, defeating experience or a successful and triumphant one. Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, together with United Way of Greater New Haven, is making a difference in people’s lives, one sentence at a time.

United Way of Greater New Haven is an outlet for your compassion, caring and concern for your community. To find out more about how you can get involved, go to www.uwgnh.org or telephone United Way of Greater New Haven at (203) 772-2010.

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