Read Lakeland Looks To Improve Adult Literacy In The Community

LAKELAND, Fla. – Currently, it is estimated that 24% of adults living in Lakeland are functioning at the lowest level of literacy. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, this 3% higher than the national average of 21% in the U.S. Read Lakeland, a local non-profit organization that started in 1995, is working to combat illiteracy in Lakeland amidst COVID-19.

Read Lakeland was originally planning their 25-year anniversary along with their annual “Kiss the Pig” fundraiser in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic forced the country to shut down. A year later, the organization is focusing on the future and how they will continue to help the community.

“A group of school teachers realized there was a need and that adults, not just children needed help,” said Beth Hesseltine, the Executive Director of Read Lakeland. “Getting a tutor for children is not a hard task but for someone over the age of 18 it can be hard to find someone who teaches an adult.”

Polk County currently has two schools that help adults get their GED. West Area Adult School and East Area Adult school specialize in helping adults finish their high school education.

In the late 90s, a small group of teachers realized that many adults in their community were struggling with literacy. This coincided with West Area school and East Area school finding that they had potential students that did not meet their minimum reading requirements.

This small group of teachers started receiving referrals from West area school and East Area school to tutor these potential students so that they would have the skills to take classes.

It became apparent that the need to combat adult illiteracy in Polk County was larger than originally expected. This prompted the group of teachers to organize and go to the Polk County school board leading to the formation of the non-profit organization Read Lakeland. The school board also started funding a program coordinator position for the organization.

Read Lakeland now has numerous volunteer tutors (mostly former teachers). The organization provides volunteer tutors and books to the adults in the community that are seeking to work on their literacy.

“It started as a need and some retired teachers saw the need,” said Hesseltine. “It continued to grow and become a non-profit and it is really still growing to this day.”

Many of their potential students are still referred to them by West Area School and East Area School. These potential students will meet with Read Lakeland’s program coordinator at the local library. During this meeting the potential students will take a pre-assessment to determine their current reading level.

“Our students could be anywhere from a first-grade reading level to an ESOL student that has their Ph.D. in another country but can not read English,” said Hesseltine.

After this evaluation, each student is assigned a starting place and tutor. Each tutor that volunteers for Read Lakeland is put through training. All tutors are then certified and are given access to workbooks and resources they need to help their students succeed. Sessions are done at least once or twice a week at the local library for about an hour or two.

“The students will be reading adult books that fit their reading level,” said Dianne Oropeza the Program Coordinator at Read Lakeland. “These books are from the New Readers Press and they are for adults at every level.”

When a book is finished by a student, their tutor will determine if they are ready to move onto a higher reading level. Many of these students are preparing to enroll at West area school or East area school so they can prepare to pass the General Educational Development (GED) tests. However, not all students are interested in pursuing their GED.

“The truth of the matter is sometimes we just have a grandparent that comes that never learned to read and they just want to learn to read the newspaper,” said Hesseltine. “There are even parents or grandparents that just want to read their kids or grandkids a bedtime story.”

Read Lakeland has seen the hard work of their students pay off. In some instances, they have been able to finance scholarships for students to be able to attend Polk State College.

Many students have had less than a fortunate educational experience. Some have had to deal with learning disabilities, a sickness in their childhood that kept them out of school, or constant relocation that never allowed them to be consistent with their studies.

Read Lakeland prides itself on making sure their students never have to pay a dime. Every year, the organization puts on its “Kiss the Pig” fundraiser. Through the fundraiser, Read Lakeland is able to provide the resources their students need to continue their education.

Before COVID-19, the fundraiser would take place in a local backyard with food, drinks, and live music provided. Each year there are several candidates who raise money. Then at the end of the night, the candidate with the most money raised is announced and has to kiss a live pig.

With the pandemic still a concern, Read Lakeland is holding their “Kiss the Pig” event virtually for a week. From April 18 to April 25, there will be a daily social media post raising awareness of literacy needs among the community. There will be 10 candidates including the board of directors who will have the opportunity to kiss the pig. On April 26, the winner will be announced virtually and will have to kiss a picture of a pig.

In addition to “Kiss the Pig”, Read Lakeland has moved much of its instruction online like most organizations across the country.

“When COVID first started it was definitely a slap in the face because meeting in person was something we were proud of,” said Hesseltine. “Our relationships were built through our meetings. So going virtual has been an adjustment.”

Many of the tutors for Read Lakeland fall into an at-risk category because of their age. This is something that the organization was conscious about and wanted to make sure everyone was safe.

Read Lakeland partners with the Florida Literacy Coalition which oversees many of Florida’s adult literacy programs. FLC helped Read Lakeland move towards online learning during the pandemic.

“They have helped us so much through this,” said Oropeza when talking about the Florida Literacy Coalition. “We have also used Zoom and our tutors have enjoyed it.”

With the COVID-19 vaccines becoming more widely available, Read Lakeland has students and tutors that are ready to start meeting back in person.

Read Lakeland wants their community to know their students come from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds. They believe their students’ stories are life-changing and are just regular people who never got a chance at a good education.

“Many times it is not about what these adults did wrong when they were kids but rather the circumstances in their life that kept them from reading,” said Hesseltine. “It just may be about what life dealt them.”

Read Lakeland is hoping to celebrate their 25 years of service and the hard work of their students in person in 2022.

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