Illiteracy needs our help, not shame

08/29/2014 3:54 PM

08/29/2014 4:12 PM

At 52, Vince Battaglia finally likes to read.

Up until a year ago, he never really read a whole book. Now he’s read five. His current favorite: “Guerrilla Season” by Pat Hughes. The novel follows a Missouri teen and his friend during the Civil War.

“It’s nice to enjoy a book,” he says. “It really is. Like my tutor says, it’s the excitement of turning the page to see what’s on the other page as you go.”

Last year, with some encouragement from his wife, Vince started working with Literacy Kansas City, the nonprofit that offers free one-on-one reading tutors to teens and adults. He’s made a living framing houses, detailing cars — doing a lot of physical work. By learning to read, he hopes to find better opportunities.

“I want to get a job where I can use my brain and not my brawn,” Vince says. “I am not getting any younger, and my brawn is starting to wear.”

As a kid, he was diagnosed with both dyslexia and ADHD and struggled to read and spell. He was supposed to attend classes designed to help him, but other students called him names.

“I didn’t want to go. I was more worried about what everybody thought about me than education,” he says. “It should have been the other way around.”

Unfortunately, illiteracy shaming doesn’t stop with children. It worked its way into social media trending topics this week thanks, to a feud between 50 Cent and Floyd Mayweather. The rapper used the ALS ice bucket challenge to taunt the boxing champ, saying if he could read a page out of one of the Harry Potter books, he would give $750,000 to a charity of Floyd’s choice. This led to a series of tacky jokes questioning the boxer’s ability to read.

It’s no laughing matter. In the Kansas City area, over 225,000 adults are functionally illiterate. Vince believes they are afraid and don’t know change is possible.

“They are old and they don’t think anyone wants to help them,” he says. “They think the help is just for the young kids, but it isn’t. It has been a year since I started, and I have come a long way thanks to my tutor, Joe. I see a difference. I can read tickets better at work. I received my motorcycle license. I am not where I want to be yet, but I am getting there.”

There’s a confidence that comes with knowing how to read and write. On Sept. 9, Literacy KC, the Writers Place and the Kansas City Public Library will celebrate “The Power of Reading” at the Plaza Library. Local writers Candice Millard and Maija Rhee Devine, alongside graduates of the program, will share what that power means to them.

Cedric Hurtt, 54, is an alumnus. He came to Literacy KC as a student in 1988. Now, he’s on the board of directors. Like Vince, dyslexia made reading a challenge for Cedric, owner of Tiki’s Auto Detailing in Kansas City. He teamed up with a tutor and worked hard for 11 years to become a fluent reader. Cedric has since written and self-published four children’s books and has made literacy awareness a priority. He will share his story next month.

“People look at me and never believe I had problems with reading and writing,” he says. “There is a stigma attached to illiteracy. When you can’t read you feel like you don’t belong. You feel like you are looking at the world through a glass window that you can’t penetrate.”

Cedric wants people to know they can break through. No matter what level they are at, they can learn to read and write.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” he says. “It matters where you are going. You can’t be afraid to push yourself just because you have a disability. Try. That’s how you grow. My mom told me quitters never win and winners never quit.”

Vince says when it comes to learning how to read, it’s all about dedication.

“I work all of the time and then I go after work for tutoring,” he says. “It’s hard some days. Sometimes, I don’t want to go to the library and meet with my tutor. But it takes work to reap the rewards.”

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

CELEBRATE READING

“The Power of Reading: A Celebration of the Written Word,” A free evening to raise literacy awareness, starts at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Plaza Library, 4801 Main St. Reserve a space by calling 816-701-3407. Literacy KC alumni along with author Candice Millard, poet and fiction writer Maija Rhee Devine, human rights activist Alvin Sykes and others will discuss what reading means to them. For more information on Literacy Kansas City, visit www.literacykc.org.

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