They Spread the Word to Those Who Can’t Read

Paula Voorhees is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

The 27-year-old gardener’s Little League team had won all its games since he began coaching--a proud accomplishment for the shy, burly young man.

But before the season ended, he abruptly resigned. He quit because the league office required some paper work, and the fact was that he could neither read nor write.

He is not alone. About 27 million Americans are classified as functionally illiterate. That means about 1 in 5 adults in the nation--and the estimates are identical for Orange County--are unable to read a medicine bottle, want ad, phone book or bus schedule.

The South Coast Literacy Council and its three offspring organizations are working to change those statistics. Last year more than 3,000 Orange County residents received free tutorial help from the organizations’ 1,000 volunteers in rooms supplied by high schools, libraries and churches.


One of the biggest problems is convincing people to accept the help.

“There is such a stigma (associated with illiteracy), many people are too embarrassed to admit it,” said Estelle Rosenthal, a tutor and board member of the council.

“If they come to us, we can help them, but they have to ‘come out of the closet.’ Many are afraid to do this and lead terrible lives of frustration and deceit, with low self-esteem.”

The South Coast Literacy Council was founded 18 years ago and is strictly nonprofit, charging nothing for its services and depending entirely on volunteers. It has since given birth to councils offering services in Orange, the central county and the north county. They use the Laubach method of teaching, a system developed by the late Dr. Frank C. Laubach, called “Mr. Literacy” by Time magazine and “the greatest teacher of our time” by Lowell Thomas.

It was as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1930s that Laubach discovered the value of key words to aid students in identifying sounds. He drew worldwide attention with his methods and rallying cry of “Each One Teach One.” In 1955, he founded Laubach Literacy International.

Although the program handles both American and foreign-born students, the latter studying English as a Second Language, Rosenthal specializes in people who have lived here all their lives.

“Those who contact us are tutored in total privacy,” said Rosenthal, 66, a retired administrative secretary whose own immigrant parents were tutored in English by volunteers in the 1920s.

“Student anonymity is preserved unless they wish to break it. Once their self-esteem is heightened because of their newly learned skills, they start feeling proud of their accomplishments and, like many religious converts, begin extolling the benefits of literacy and the program.”

Such was the case of a 49-year-old successful salesman named Jim who earned between $60,000 and $80,000 a year, yet could not read and could write only his name, address and numbers.

“He had developed an incredible memory to compensate for his lack of literacy,” Rosenthal said. “He once said that he wasn’t stupid, just that he couldn’t read. He has been in our program now for 6 months.

“He recently started to tell me a story which points out the indignities an illiterate faces on a day-to-day basis. I asked him to write it down as part of his homework. This poignant piece is the most he has written in his life.”

Here is what Jim wrote:

I want to tell you about traffic school. I got there at 8 in the morning. The teacher gave us a card to fill out. It was not hard to do. When class started, he asked people to read. I was lucky he did not call on me.

At 10 a.m. we had a coffee break. I went outside to meet him. I told him that I could not read. He said, “How did you fill out the card?” I said it was easy, it was just your name and address and only numbers. So he said that he would not embarrass me. After the coffee break we started class, and it was fun.

After our lunch break he gave us a book of traffic laws. He asked people to read and then he looked at me and said, “Would you read the next paragraph? Oh, I am sorry, I said I would not embarrass you.” Well, he already did. So I stood up and told the class that I was illiterate; that I did not know how to read, but I am going to school to learn how, and I feel good about it....

I have a wife and two children. I have made good money in the past years. The only time I was ashamed was when my 3-year-old daughter asked me to read her a story and I couldn’t. That is a shame. A man stood up and said, “I have a 22-year-old son and he cannot read. May I have your phone number? I would like him to talk to you after school.”

Rosenthal said self-esteem definitely rises with students as they progress in their studies. Robert, the gardener, used to come to his lessons with head down and not look at his tutor for the whole hour. Little by little, he is opening up, smiling and discussing the problem. At a recent lesson he was able to read a few words in a newspaper. His mother said he was so thrilled, he came directly home and asked her to order daily delivery of a newspaper.

How did he manage to graduate from a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., high school without being able to read or write? “All through school I was overlooked,” the shy, sunburned gardener said haltingly. “I was in slow-learner classes, and I just got shuffled through the system. They told me I would never be able to learn to read. I hate them for that.”

“There is no reason for illiteracy--but many causes of it,” said Rosenthal, recently named Retired Senior Volunteer Program Tutor by Laubach Literacy International. “Adult illiterates may quit school, or have learning disabilities. He or she may have a physical or emotional disability, or be uninterested in learning at an early age. There might have been a traumatic period or incident. The teacher may have been ineffective, or the individual may not have been motivated to learn to read.”

Besides the functionally illiterate, Rosenthal said, another 47 million Americans are categorized as marginally literate--able to read, write and compute but unable to use these skills proficiently.

“Each One Teach One” is free to any adult who wants to learn to read, write and speak English. Prospective tutors and students may call (800) 228-8813 for the location of the nearest teaching facility.