By Tess Malijenovsky
Most of us take for granted being able to read this article, the directions on a pill bottle, a Bible. Meanwhile, nearly 11,000 adults in Beaufort County lack those basic literacy skills. Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry (LVL) is a local nonprofit that equips illiterate adults in Beaufort and Jasper counties with the skills they need to be successful in the workplace, their families and the community. The nonprofit is doing such a great job, in fact, that it recently won the Erin Hardwick Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management — essentially, the best-run nonprofit with a budget under $499,000 in South Carolina.
Recently, the Beaufort branch of LVL had its ribbon cutting for its new space in the SC Works building (the employment office off of S.C. 170). “It’s a strategic move on our part to be closer to a population of people that may need our services,” said Cindi Riley, Assistant Executive Director at the LVL Beaufort Learning Center. Political figures, school board and adult education members, and partners of LVL were among some of the guests who attended.
While the group works with adults aged 18 and older, Riley finds that the majority of students are between the ages of 25 and 44: “That is the prime age that people are working, raising families and being active in the community. We do have people who are retired and, now that they have time, just want to be able to do all the things that literate adults take for granted.” Such as writing a letter or reading to their grandchildren.
Many times, adults come to LVL threatened by an employment crisis. Also, it’s common that some adults —usually the oldest in a large family — simply didn’t have access to education growing up, often because a parent passes and they are forced to drop out of school to help support the family. Others who couldn’t read to their own children but are now caretakers of their grandchildren want to be able to read and help with homework.
However, LVL mostly teaches English to non-native speakers of all nationalities. Many military wives of other nationalities come to learn English, but 85 percent of LVL students are Latino, which has to do in large part with the 279 percent increase in the Spanish-speaking population of Beaufort County.
Without the ability to read and write, use technology or speak English proficiently, many adults have difficulty following simple instructions, understanding warnings or asking clarifying questions. LVL faces this problem by providing one-on-one, small group and computerized instruction with trained volunteers. While there is a $40 registration fee that helps to keep LVL’s doors open, Riley says that she will often waive the fee up front because no one is turned away for lack of funds.
Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry is an exemplary nonprofit in its management and mission, and illiterate adults are not the only ones in the community benefiting. LVL offers the WorkReady SC Certificate Program, which evaluates and certifies an individual’s current literacy level. With such a certificate, employers could recognize whom they could put to work tomorrow and succeed.
“I wish more businesses would take advantage of this,” said Riley. As a member on the Education of Workforce Development Committee for the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, Riley said that encouraging businesses to profile their jobs is something the chamber has been grappling with for a while and she hopes there will soon be state pressure to do so.