Washtenaw Literacy's "World in a Basket" raises funds

International Literacy Day is September 8 -- a day that calls attention to the global issue of illiteracy. Sound like a problem for third-world countries? Think closer to home. In Washtenaw County -- renowned for world-class universities and hospitals, active art and cultural communities, and scholarly, progressive urban areas -- one in eight adult men and women have reading skills so rudimentary they can't complete a simple form ... or a job application.

"People are shocked to discover that 12% of Washtenaw County residents are functionally illiterate," says Chris Roberts, executive director of Washtenaw Literacy, a nonprofit organization that helps illiterate adults learn to read and write. "These are adults who can't read instructions on a bottle of medicine or a note from their child's teacher. Imagine the struggles of coping in a society that's increasingly knowledge-driven."

Indeed, she adds, illiteracy is a sure-fire path to increasing poverty and decreasing employability. Statistics compiled by the group show that 43% of people with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty and that illiteracy is a major barrier to employment for 47% of people receiving public assistance. Further, illiteracy is self-perpetuating: half the children born to illiterate parents will grow up to be illiterate adults.

"Although it may appear to be an individual problem, it impacts entire communities," Roberts says. Research has shown that illiteracy is a significant economic drain, as well as a leading cause of crime and higher healthcare costs. In fact, literacy skills are a stronger predictor of an individual's health status than age, income, job, education level or ethnicity

But there is some good news. Literacy programs, such as those run by Washtenaw Literacy, do work. The National Center for Family Literacy reports that one year in a basic literacy skills class results in a 25% increase in employment. A World Health Organization study found that the most effective way to promote children's health was to raise the literacy levels of their mothers. And a three-state study of prison recidivism found that inmates who participate in educational classes are less likely to be imprisoned again.

Sadly, the need for literacy services far outpaces their availability, and the gap is growing. In a weakened economy, increased competition for jobs raises basic employment requirements. And as immigration rates rise, so does the demand for English instruction for new Americans.

"With more funding, we could serve so many more in need," says Roberts. "To us, $100 means a group tutoring session and $500 means a whole year of one-on-one tutoring. That's absolutely life-changing."

Washtenaw Literacy is meeting the funding challenge head-on with its annual "World in a Basket" fundraiser on October 3 in Washtenaw Community College's Morris Lawrence Building. A strolling dinner and auction -- where "baskets" of vacation packages, big screen TVs and other luxuries go to the highest bidder -- have attracted those looking to support an important cause in an entertaining setting for 10 years. The honorary host of this year's event will be Lloyd Carr, former University of Michigan head football coach.

Anyone looking to help improve literacy -- and the lives of 27,000 of their neighbors -- can do so through ticket purchases or donations of auction items. All proceeds from the event go to fund Washtenaw Literacy's programs ... programs that have a 90% learner success rate.

To learn more about Washtenaw Literacy's "World in a Basket," visit worldinabasket.blogspot.com.