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Seventy years ago, a U.S. adult was considered literate if he or she could sign his or her name.

Today, everyone needs reading and writing skills. In my visits with fast food restaurant managers, they emphasized that, because of food preparation exams, recipes, and money exchange, they too needed workers with good literacy skills.

When I began my work in literacy 23 years ago, we all knew that our focus was on helping people with reading, writing, and math. 

One day, two years later, something new showed up on the main office desk:

A computer … a Leading Edge computer.

This machine, in 1987, might as well have been a Martian: a genuine alien from another planet.

Today, it is a way of life, an avenue for ordering goods, doing business, and meeting people.

And here we are, blogging on it.

In the course of the computer becoming part of the American household and, more and more, the international household, we added a whole other layer of skills that people needed to function in society.

Today, everyone needs to know keyboarding. The average person needs to be able to navigate the Internet to function in the New World.

And, while the digital divide has been narrowed, there are still many households in the U.S. where there are no computers.  

Before, all you needed was pen and paper. And, if you had a typewriter, you were doing pretty well.

For low income families who can barely afford to pay the phone bill, the thought of owning a computer is out of the question. Hence, once again, those with the greatest needs are at the largest disadvantage for the wrong reason: They just do not have the resources to keep up with technology and other changes.

A high percentage of young people who are not succeeding in school are affected by the low socio-economic status of their family. It’s an endless cycle that can be broken. Many of the families with whom we work will not give up on their dream. You would see this with your own eyes if you visited your local library. You would see that the computer labs are filled up, right when school lets out.

There are other obstacles with which we are dealing, in addition to the low socio-economic status, literacy challenges, language barriers, and cultural differences that affect, for example, healthcare in this country to the tune of 73 billion dollars lost annually because of low health literacy. In short, the definition of literacy is determined by the needs of our society, and by the future, which has been become, in past decades, a rapidly moving target.

Futurist, Alvin Toffler said,

“The Illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

We already know that the future for which we are preparing our students will not be there when these students are done with their studies. The technology, too, will be different.

Families and business are doing all that they can to keep up with rapid change. Sometimes, it is easier to forget about the skill needs of those who are most lacking in skills. We have to recognize that the workforce of today is also the workforce of the future.  

We need to continue to invest in adult education and literacy to meet current needs. And, as relates to the next generation of workers, we need to recognize that the keys to their successes are not in our public education system. The keys are adult literacy and parenting. 

We are losing the battle in the home, in the first three years of a child’s development.

The parent is the child’s first and most important teacher and the home is the child’s first school.

Our goal at the San Diego Council on Literacy is to address the needs of those who are at the lowest levels of literacy. From here, we know that significant change happens. We affect the present and the future, especially generations of families, through greater literacy. And we are able to have the impact that we have because of people like you, who want to have a positive and direct impact on lives and on society.

Please consider, at this time, becoming a literacy volunteer. Call us at 888-850-7323 and we will introduce you to someone new, someone who is motivated to make change happen in his or her life, who wants a successful career, and who wants to be involved in their child’s development and education and who wants to read to their child and help with homework and do the things that all parents should have the skills to do.

Look at the posting left for us by Maria Gonzalez. She says it all. Her life changed, and her family’s apparent destiny was not to be. She intervened and she and her family were able to make a path that took them in a whole new direction, because Maria was assertive and driven to live an improved quality of life through literacy.  And leave no doubt, she could not have done it without someone, like you, who offered to help.

— JOSE CRUZ

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