Cuts Threaten Adult Literacy Push

Demand for adult literacy rises as funding threatened.

The Press-Enterprise
John Zickefoose’s interest in education and literacy is personal. After struggling with dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder from elementary through high school, he finally turned for help to the library where he now works. He was 35 years old and could no longer work in his home-repair business because he needed back surgery and a new career. His 7-year-old son read better than he could. So 17 years ago he walked in the Corona Library and embarked on a journey of literacy.

Today, Zickefoose is on the board of an international literacy organization and the Corona-Norco Unified School District. He is outreach coordinator at the Corona Public Library. “I owe my life to this library,” he said. “It totally transformed me as a human being.” Such transformations could become more elusive as governments struggle to balance the budgets.

Demand for adult literacy services in the Inland area is higher than ever, but funding cuts threaten the programs run from public libraries. ProLiteracy, an international literacy organization, estimates about 14 percent of the U.S. population is functionally illiterate.

California has the lowest literacy rates in the United States, with 20 percent illiteracy, said Amy Schmitz, communications director for ProLiteracy in Syracuse, N.Y. The percentage may vary some between high- and low-income neighborhoods, but not as much as people think, Zickefoose said. Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget would eliminate the $4.5 million the state provides to adult literacy programs such as the one at Corona’s library. Inland coordinators don’t know how they will keep their programs going without state money.

“For every $1 of state funds, $4 of private donations are leveraged,” said David Harvey, president and CEO of ProLiteracy. The international organization supports programs at the local level. It offers advocacy assistance as well as reading materials for adult learners. “In this economy, we’ve been flooded with people who’ve lost their jobs and will not be able to get another job if they don’t improve their skills,” Harvey said. The organization is seeing funding cuts across the nation. Literacy programs with strong advocates like Zickefoose are faring a little better, Harvey said.

SMALL BUDGET, BIG RESULTS Zickefoose, who is on the ProLiteracy board of directors, works with a $30,000 budget, coordinating volunteer tutors one-on-one with adult learners. The program has about 45 volunteers and about 50 clients at a time. “It’s not a huge amount of money for what it does for somebody’s life,” Zickefoose said.

People are so much more productive to society once they can read, he said. They get better jobs and pay more taxes. Once they overcome the deep shame of being unable to read and write, they can help others. Zickefoose said he wouldn’t even help coach his son’s soccer team 17 years ago. “I was afraid a little 5-year-old would bring me a piece of paper I couldn’t read,” Zickefoose said.

Once Zickefoose learned to read, he started volunteering, not just at church or AYSO. He co-founded United Neighbors Involving Today’s Youth, a nonprofit group that works to get young people involved in positive activities. During family nights, he gets young children and their parents excited about reading and wanting to pick up books. “I have had parents come to me over the years and say ‘You’re the reason my little ones love to read.’ ” Zickefoose, 52, said most adult learners wrestle with the same learning disabilities with which he still struggles. Lori Eastman, literacy coordinator for Hemet Public Library Adult Literacy Services, said Zickefoose’s beginning on the road to literacy is typical, although he has gone further than most.

Adults are most often in their 30s or 40s, forced to make a career change and embarrassed because they can’t help their children, she said. Four adult learners in Hemet echoed many of the same frustrations that brought them to seek help learning to read and write better, although they wouldn’t give their full names because they too are embarrassed about their disabilities. They said they wanted to help their children with their schoolwork and set a better example. They told of lifelong learning difficulties. One woman who identified herself only as Hadeal said she came from Jerusalem three years ago. Since enrolling in Adult Literacy Services at the Hemet library, she now checks her children’s schoolwork on the computer and volunteers in her youngest daughter’s classroom. “Before, I was scared to go talk to the teacher,” Hadeal said. PLEAS TO STATE Adult learners in Hemet have formed a reading circle and have written letters to state legislators asking for adult literacy funding to be preserved. Eastman said the city of Hemet supplements the $30,000 that comes from the state. Supplies come from donations and fundraisers, she said. Corona Library Director Julie Frederickson said she is hopeful that community donors and the city will keep the literacy program afloat if state funding is cut. Harvey was less optimistic. He said the state funds are seed money for all of the libraries’ and literacy programs’ fundraising efforts. “The private sector is never going to be able to replace the publicly funded core,” Harvey said. Reach Dayna Straehley at 951- 368-9455 or


To be trained as a volunteer literacy tutor, to donate, or to learn to read and write, contact the nearest public library.


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