Thanks to Joe Distelheim of Hilton Head Island for sharing the story of the 40-year effort to improve adult literacy in Beaufort County.
Joe is a retired newspaper editor and a volunteer with The Literacy Center, formerly Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry.
'The Power of Literacy'
By Joe Distelheim
They remember the one-time professional boxer who wanted to learn about the world, and the women from Poland and Russia who now have their own businesses here. They tell of the man who couldn't read his Bible who's now a pastor preaching on the radio, and of the man who didn't know when his birthday was but wanted to be able to read to his children.
Ask the four former directors of The Literacy Center (formerly Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry) about the students they've met and the stories come in great number. They span four decades and many thousand students, some who were born in this country and never learned to read, some who knew no English when they arrived to live in the United States.
This year, the effort marks 40 years since people in this county began helping local adults enrich their lives by learning to read, write, speak and understand the English language.
The roots of today's operation, which teaches more than 600 students a year basic literacy and English as a second language at seven sites, are on St. Helena Island. There, in 1973-74, Roman Catholic sisters and other residents began working with children under the name Beaufort County Literacy Association. Various government agencies had taken a hand when Peggy May took over a fledgling Beaufort-based program in the late 1980s.
May, who passed away July 24, opened the doors to contributed space at First Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head Island for classes two days a week.
"We had very few books, limited training," she recalled in a recent interview. "After the first day, half the volunteers left."
If it was hard getting volunteers; it was perhaps harder getting students. Clearly, the need was there, but word-of-mouth was the primary recruiting tool. As May pointed out, "You can't advertise for them when they can't read."
Initially, the students were American-born people who'd never learned to read, many of them the products of inferior segregated schools.
Randolph McPherson was one of those. May told me the story:
"He couldn't read or write. Didn't even know when his birthday was." He said he showed up for classes "because he had a first-grader smarter than he was." He wanted to be able to read the child a Christmas story.
Volunteers taught him to manage money, open a bank account, do the everyday things people who are literate take for granted.
One day he came into the TLC office with a bandage on his arm and a big smile on his face. May wanted to know what happened. He said he'd hurt his arm and had to go to the hospital to get it fixed. Yes, but why are you smiling?
It was the first time, he said, that he'd gone to a doctor or hospital and was able to fill out the forms himself.
Carol McMillan, briefly May's successor before moving to community relations and fundraising for TLC, was there when the organization's best-known success story, Bill Bligen, walked in. It was the early 1990s, she thinks.
"He must have been in his late 60s that year. He had worked in New York, building tunnels under the river, and as a longshoreman, and as a professional boxer. His education ended about fifth grade. He could read some, he could write some.
"But he wanted his GED. He had this great curiosity about the world; he wanted to learn. He stayed with the program until he passed away."
Bligen not only became literate; he became computer literate, and he became an ambassador for adult literacy. After his death in 2004, just short of his 81st birthday, TLC named its annual "Student of the Year" award for him.
A NEW WORLD
The organization's mission expanded. There were partnerships with the school district and with major local businesses and hotels, which had employees who needed literacy training. And May vividly remembers going to area migrant camps to recruit workers who wanted to learn English. By their job description, though, those workers didn't stay in the area long.
The ESL -- English as a Second Language -- program took off in the mid-'90s. The Iron Curtain lifted and Eastern Europeans came here to work in the hotels. Then came a big influx of people from Central and South America. Suddenly, TLC went from about 150 students a year to 1,000.
Rebecca Morris had been teaching basic literacy at the Beaufort County Detention Center when she became director of TLC to do much the same thing. She estimates the program was 80-85 percent basic literacy, improving the language skills of local people including employees of big local businesses -- Sea Pines and Palmetto Dunes, large hotels, Palmetto Electric.
"Ten years later it had flipped," she said. "The needs of the community changed."
As was the case with the migrants, it was difficult to get those in need to come forward. Many weren't literate in their own languages. But the program expanded quickly; during her tenure, it reached students from 26 countries, not only from the Americas but from Europe and Asia.
The organization started "Born to Read," training volunteers to meet with parents of newborns. This organization has now spun off into a separate entity.
Nancy Williams, who retired as TLC executive director in 2013 after 11 years (and more than two decades with the organization), inherited a burgeoning program.
The south end of the county was experiencing an increasing number of immigrants, largely because of deteriorating economic conditions in Central and South America. They, like newcomers from the Northeast and Midwest, liked the climate and they would tell their friends and family.
An evening program at Hilton Head Island High School grew from 20 students to 120 in a short time. The classes expanded to St. Francis By the Sea Catholic Church on Hilton Head, for a time to St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Bluffton, to H.E. McCracken Middle School in Bluffton, Battery Creek High in Beaufort, and others. Today, the primary learning centers are located at on Oak Park Drive on Hilton Head and on S.C. 46 in Bluffton; there are five additional satellite sites.
"We tried to be very responsive to changing demographics in this area," Williams said. "We put programs close to where people lived so they could get there easily. We've been extremely nimble in responding to changing demographics and changing needs in the area."
She continues to be heartened by the success stories she observed: Nina, a Polish woman who now has housekeeping and pet-sitting businesses. Juan and his construction business, Cesar and Jorge, restaurant managers. Daniel, the chef whose wedding she attended. People who've bought homes, people who've sent their children to prestigious universities.
"I have just seen so many successes, people who are contributing members of our community, and pass those successes on to their children."
More than 40 years after its modest founding, TLC is still highly respected. It's a former winner of the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce "Nonprofit of the Year" Award, and two years ago won the statewide Erin Hardwick Award for Nonprofit Excellence.
Williams makes the point that it's not only the individual students who gain. She's been a member of the Lowcountry Workforce Investment Board, seeing TLC as an institution that contributes to the local workforce. "They're not useful if they don't speak, read and write English," she said.
"What really has stuck with me is I would feel pride if someone would come up to me and say, I remember you. You helped change my life."
A WHOLE COMMUNITY
It's not only about the students who want to learn to read. It's about the whole community.
That's the message Jean Heyduck wants to get out as she moves through her second year as executive director of The Literacy Center.
"What many people don't understand about low literacy," she says, "is how it affects them and the community, the collective whole."
She ticks off the figures: $225 billion a year nationally in lost wages, unemployment, government assistance, welfare.
And then there's health care. When people can't read, they have a hard time getting jobs. When they aren't employed, health care costs increase.
She explains that people who don't read well underutilize health care -- or overuse it. They aren't smart consumers.
"You and I go to the Internet and read about our medical conditions," she says. "People who can't read don't do that. They can't take preventive measures or manage their conditions effectively. Or they can't read prescription bottles or doctor's orders.
"It's the same thing with crime: 70 percent of inmates are functionally illiterate. Are we safer, as a society, when we're more literate? My guess would be yes."
Heyduck came to TLC early in 2013 from Wisconsin, and from a strong background in working with nonprofits, including Boys & Girls Clubs and a technical college foundation. She likes this kind of work because "it's nice to know you're making an impact on someone's life, and on the community."
The Literacy Center does that for hundreds of adult students, but she sees far more to do in terms of reaching more people and making TLC's instruction ever more relevant to their personal goals.
Eleven percent of Beaufort County adults are functionally illiterate, she says. And "if you can't read, you can't get involved in the community. You can't help your kids."
Heyduck wants people to see that that's a problem for all of us.