Announcing a New PMA Project:
The Lifetime Literacy Foundation Is Up and Running
by Susan Nicoletti
Readers often celebrate new books that focus on the critical issue of literacy. A few years ago, many loved Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, a compelling tale of one woman’s carefully hidden illiteracy and tragic fate. This year brought Life Is So Good, George Dawson’s story of his functional illiteracy, written with Richard Glaubman. Dawson learned to write in his 98th year, and his proudest moment came when, at the age of 101, he signed his book contract with distinctive cursive writing instead of with his traditional X.
How pervasive is adult illiteracy? According to a study by the National Adult Literacy Survey (www.americanliteracy.com/literacy_figures.htm), approximately 22 percent of American adults are functioning at the lowest level of literacy—which means the first- or second-grade level. Of course, these adults are likely to have the lowest incomes and the most sporadic, inconsistent employment.
When National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chairman Dana Gioia convened a “Reading at Risk” meeting in Los Angeles last year to discuss findings from the massive NEA survey of “literary reading,” he warned all of us attendees: If we didn’t leave thoroughly depressed, he said, it would mean that he hadn’t done his job.
The report certainly was grim as it recited the ways the literacy rate in our country has fallen to an all-time low across all age groups, income levels, ethnicities, and educational backgrounds. (For details, visit www.arts.gov/pub/ReadingAtRisk.pdf.)
Helping People Learn to Read
PMA refuses to be pessimistic. Instead, we are working to help eradicate and prevent illiteracy in the United States through the new Lifetime Literacy Foundation (LLF). This charitable nonprofit arm of PMA is already creating programs to help illiterate and low-literate adults and children work on basic literacy skills they need to function in today’s complex society.
Our new literacy Web site—www.lifetimeliteracy.org—is a virtual warehouse where you can make tax-deductible donations of books for a vast array of projects, all designed to increase literacy throughout the United States by working within the nonliterate population.
LLF’s first project centers on literacy in our country’s prisons. A bleak report from the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center focused on the connection between illiteracy and homelessness that results in incarceration, noting that 80 percent of parolees return to prison within three years of their release. Additionally, a U.S. government literacy survey of state and federal prisoners found that “two-thirds of America’s nearly one million prisoners . . . are less literate than the general U.S. adult population.” (Detailed information about these studies is available at www.weingart.org/institute and www.ed.gov/PressReleases/12-1994/pris.html.)
How to Get Involved
The centerpiece of LLF’s prison literacy effort is a partnership with prison librarians. Selected librarians are beta-testing the ordering process from the recipient’s end, but you can use its online database now to list the titles of books you would like to contribute to this worthy cause. Librarians who access the LLF database will decide which titles and quantities they want and pay shipping costs for the books they order.
LLF is also establishing a relationship with Feed the Children (FTC), one of the largest relief charities in the United States (www.feedthechildren.org). Its mission is providing children with nourishment for both body and mind, and since 1979 it has worked with civic-minded corporations that donate all kinds of essentials—food, school supplies, medicine, and clothing. Feed the Children considers books an equally important essential.
With the help of corporate sponsors like Home Depot and Frito-Lay Corporation, FTC regularly holds giveaway events in cities across the country and distributes books, food, school supplies, and backpacks to at least 5,000 homeless children per school district. These events often draw media coverage and feature children’s book authors who donate books—which FTC stamps “not for resale.” Information about opportunities for author appearances at future FTC giveaway events will be available via the LLF Web site early in 2007.
When you visit LLF’s site, the slogan you will see—“It’s never too late to learn to read”—presents the words of John Corcoran, whose book, The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read, chronicles his experiences as a functional illiterate for almost 50 years. Having triumphed over his illiteracy, John Corcoran is now a passionate literacy advocate—and a Lifetime Literacy Foundation board member.
Susan Nicoletti has worked with PMA for two years, overseeing the Books for Review, Bookstore, and Target Marketing Catalog programs. She is now also the executive director of the Lifetime Literacy Foundation.