Illiteracy affects more than 25,000 in valley

One out of every seven people over the age of 18 in the Northern Virginia Shenandoah Valley does not have a high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate, according to profiles by the Virginia Literacy Foundation based on the U.S. Census.

And two-thirds of them – more than 17,000 – are older than 45 years.

All 25,900 are classified illiterate.

And their deficiencies fall under an umbrella of issues that may include an inability to read and write, no experience with computers, a lack of basic math to manage finances, understanding the requirements for citizenship or no familiarity with legal issues.

Many have had to develop coping mechanisms that allow them to “survive but not thrive and they can’t reach their economic potential,” said Mark Sieffert, 40, who heads the nonprofit Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area organization.

“They may ask a co-worker, a friend or a relative for help in filling out a form or application,” he explained. “They have many different coping strategies.”

Sieffert carries to speeches a blown-up license form for a driver’s license with words blacked out that anyone with less than an elementary school education would not be able to read.

The DMV application becomes indecipherable.

Literacy Volunteers is one of numerous local and national efforts to help those who struggle with understanding the daily demands of today’s society as it moves into the technological age.

“The solution is multi-faceted when talking about adults with literacy deficits,” said Sieffert. “I am not sure there is an answer that fits all.”

Sieffert oversees more than 100 volunteers who teach 10 individualized tutoring courses that last year helped 354 students – half of them immigrants seeking help with English – a three-fold increase from 111 students in 2013. The group’s efforts began in 1985 and have broadened since then.

Courses today include basic reading, writing and math; pre-GED classes: citizenship requirements; computer operations; job hunting skills; financial literacy; English for speakers of other languages, and family literacy.

Statistics emphasize the need:

  • 100 percent of major employers in Winchester require computer-based applications.
  • 85 percent of patients cannot read medical information without help.
  • Only 28 percent of those who visit Literacy Volunteers Winchester area (includes Frederick and Clarke Counties) earn a living wage compared to 87% of the general population.

“It takes courage to come through our door (at 301 N. Cameron St. on Winchester’s Our Health campus),” Sieffert said. “We will find someone to help them as soon as we can. We are here to work with any student who has a goal they seek to achieve. Many just didn’t have the lessons they needed when growing up.”

His organization joins local schools, churches, libraries, companies, retired teachers and many others in the century-long national battle to improve the nation’s illiteracy rate, with only 59 percent of Americans even aware it is a problem, according to a 2017 ProLiteracy study.

It was a cause championed for decades by Barbara Bush, the late wife of U.S. President George H. W. Bush.

Two annual fundraisers yield an estimated $80,000 of the organization’s $150,000 annual budget, augmented by grants from United Way, Dollar General Foundation, the Virginia Literacy Foundation and private donations.

That funds one full-time and four part-time employees while 100 volunteers donate their skills and time valued at $187,000, Sieffert said, often providing free one-on-one mentoring in public places using erratic schedules worked out between the mentor and the often underemployed student.

“Big companies fight for employees in a high employment economy,” said Sieffert and job opportunities increase.

The unemployment rate for the Northern Shenandoah Valley was 3.4 percemt in March and included the City of Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Clarke, Page, Shenandoah and Warren.

The comparable national rate was 4.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

N. Funkhouser & Co., a Winchester-based fueling company and owner of Handy Mart convenience stores, has supported its employees by enrolling them in financial literacy classes.

“We saw a need for our employees to get some financial help and they took the financial literacy course,” said Ken Rice, executive vice-president and chief operating officer for H. N. Funkhouser.

“It has helped them with managing personal finances and those who took it said they wished they had taken it when they were younger,” he said.

“Hopefully, it helps them manage their lives better and that makes them more productive and happier employees,” Rice said. “It’s a good program.”

Numerous studies by literacy groups have found that those who commit to achieving literacy “improve their earning potential,” said Sieffert.

Ursula Williams, 54, of Winchester, took care of her parents at home when she was school age and worked low-paying retail jobs for several years after her parents died.

She got her GED when she was in her 40s and has taken several classes at Literacy Volunteers that have helped her get a better paying job at NW Works.

“I love it,” she said.

“Those courses have been very beneficial to me,” she added. “The staff at Literacy have been wonderful and a great source of inspiration and they did their best to find me a job.”

Volunteers remain the heartbeat of the organization.

“Here is where master teachers retire,” Sieffert said. “We are very lucky. There are literacy programs where there is a year and half waiting list before they can help someone due to a shortage of volunteers.”

A volunteer for 11 years, Vicky Edwards, 72, inaugurated the computer literacy program, noting today people “can hardly get a job unless they know how to operate a computer. A lot of jobs require you to go online and apply.”

Edwards holds an associate’s degree in computer programming and said:  “I get to meet a lot of neat people. Some are between jobs, some disabled or on workman’s comp and they have a need to change the course of their lives.”

“People who come here want to develop skills to improve their lives and we do that,” she said.

Sieffert noted: “We only take committed students, unlike in school where teachers may have to cajole students to work.”