WSW: Wiping Out Adult Illiteracy

May 20, 2014

Anthony Everson, a 53-year-old warehouse worker from Kalamazoo, and his tutor, Carl Ill, a retired principal and English teacher, work together in March. They've been meeting for the last 1 1/2 years.
Credit Earlene McMichael, WMUK

The Kalamazoo Adult Literacy Council says not being able to read is an invisible impairment -- or at least one easy to conceal. 

That's why it is trying to raise awareness about the estimated 25,000 adults in Kalamazoo County who struggle to read, and its free tutoring services to assist this population.

WMUK's Earlene McMichael introduces us to Anthony Everson. The 53-year-old warehouse worker from Kalamazoo shares his story about getting through life with limited reading ability. Everson hopes to earn his GED, and so has turned to the council for literacy instruction. 

A video of Everson was shown Tuesday night during a 40th anniversary celebration for the Kalamazoo Literacy Council. 

About 250 adults receive reading assistance at the Adult Literacy Council each year, projected to continue growing by another 100 adults annually. That means ever more volunteer tutors will be needed.  

Some might wonder how it is that many of us don’t know tens of thousands of Kalamazoo County residents grapple with reading in a community that values education. It is happening because, officials say, those who can’t read well work hard to mask their reading challenges. 

About  a year and half ago, Anthony Everson finally decided to get help. His inability to read well is a secret that the married father of a 27-year-old son has kept from many all of his life.  Then he had had enough of the hiding.

He signed up for free tutoring services with the Kalamazoo Adult Literacy Council. Everson longed to more often read things on his own, like mail, a skill some might take for granted. 

 “When it’s something that’s real hard for me to read, I got my wife to help -- and, I got my son to help me and I got my brothers to help me. But I was getting tired of that.” 

Michael Evans
Credit Melvin Rutherford

Like other adults with reading challenges, Everson says he had found ways to disguise them in public. He used to make sure not to draw attention to himself by remaining silent in many settings, and you’d certainly never catch him reading anything in front of someone -- or for someone.  

"My biggest problem is I didn't want people to know that I couldn't read," said Everson.

Adult Literacy Council Executive Director Michael Evans says some adult non-readers go to great lengths to avoid detection.  

“One way to look for it is to look for the literacy transactions that are taking place on a daily level. So, the paperwork that is being filled out, the menus that are handed out, or anything that is required to be written or read to make that transaction work, that’s when the non-reader or the struggling reader is likely to mask some of those deficiencies or to ask for help. In many cases, it may be they would say, ‘I don’t have my glasses today, can you help me fill out this paperwork?’ " 

That held true for Anthony Everson.

“I felt like I was dumb. I really felt like I was dumb because I couldn’t read. ….. I feel better today because I have the encouragement of the tutors, my tutor, and his name is Carl, to tell me that I’m doing good.”

Everson has gone up about roughly two grade levels in his reading over the last year and a half, thanks to an aggressive plan.  He chooses to meet four times a week with his tutor, for two hours each session. 

According to Michael Evans, about 80 percent of those seeking reading help from the Adult Literacy Council do so for a job-related reason, such as to get a job or a better one. The remaining 20 percent state as their main goals: a desire to be able to read to their children or grandchildren, or understand their mail, newspaper or medical prescriptions. 

Anthony Everson grew up in Miami, attending a rough-and-tumble high school where he was once twice stabbed in the neck when he went across the street for lunch. He was raised by his mother, who was separated from his father at the time.

As a youth, he had to contend with poverty, teasing from his peers about his unsteady reading skills, his inability to ask teachers for help due to fear and, ultimately, a lack of academic intervention during his lower elementary-school years to address the problem. 

He dropped out of high school in 11th grade to help his mother with the bills. But Everson’s reading difficulty started much earlier. He says he has painful memories of kids in second grade laughing when it was his turn to  read. 

 “And I kind of got really offended of that… We had to read in class, sometimes. They tell us to read some books out loud in class. Sometimes, I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know if it was just me because I was thinking of growing up and I was thinking about what we were going through… But whatever it was, it changed me to say I was afraid for the help that I needed. And, at the time, the teachers there they should gave me the help. They knew how bad I was struggling and they kept pushing me along.”

Everson moved to Michigan at age 25 to be near his father, ultimately settling in Kalamazoo and getting married.

While literacy advocates say having a reading problem often complicates a struggling reader’s job search, Anthony Everson has been lucky in that regard. His inability to read well and lack of a high school diploma and GED haven’t kept him from getting jobs. In fact, the warehouse worker says he’s managed to get plenty of work to support his family.

The problem, he says, is what kind of work. Physical work – work that required using his body and not his mind. And sometimes, work that pays a low salary. 

Credit Earlene McMichael, WMUK

The breaking point came in summer 2012. The Kalamazoo resident had then been commuting back and forth to a warehouse job in Battle Creek. He did this for nine years.

He remembers that the half-hour drive, longer if the weather was bad, was getting too much to handle. And the long ride home gave him plenty of time to store up frustration about the dreams that he had for himself, dreams that he had yet to make a move on.

“I woke up one day, and I just said, ‘You know, Anthony, you got to do this. Whatever thing that you have to do – you have to do this. You have to read; you have to get a GED. And I just woke up one morning, and just said, ‘You know, I am so tired of this. I am really, really tired of this that I can’t read hardly. And I want to be able to read. I want to be able to get better jobs because I can read. I want to able to understand life more better, understand looking at the newspaper, reading my mail, just writing letters and stuff to someone who I need to write a letter to.’ ”  

Everson has other dreams, too. He would like an office job one day, and, hopefully, even open his own trucking business.  A college degree in business is on his bucket list, as well.

In July 2012, Everson began receiving free tutoring services from the Kalamazoo Adult Literacy Council. That it was free was eye-opening for Everson. He says his limited finances are a chief reason why he hadn’t enrolled in any program in the past.  

Everson, who turns 54 in July, recently had a heart ailment that forced him to take a short break from tutoring. He’s now back, working at his reading as hard as ever. On a late Tuesday afternoon in March, Everson and his tutor, Carl Ill, were busy building up his skills to pre-break level. Ill says:  

“We’re just getting back into our regular routine. He’d be sharper a month from now. The basics he’s got down cold. I figured out right away that Anthony was a hard-working, dedicated, dependable, sort of guy. ... You want somebody who is dependable, who will do what they say they're going to do, show up on time.  Otherwise you can’t help them a whole lot.”   

Everson no longer works in Battle Creek, 10 months ago accepting a warehouse job at Goodwill Industries in Kalamazoo where he meets with his tutor.

Everson hopes that, maybe, one day he’ll be that business owner.  

“I’m praying that will happen before I get a bit little too older," he says. "And, by the grace of God, I’m trying to make that come true.” 

For more information, call the Literacy Council at (269) 382-0490, ext. 222.