March Non-profit: The Nashville Adult Literacy Council
"I get goosebumps when I see what people have overcome and where they’re headed, and the fact that they are working double overtime shifts and showing up at 9 a.m. to learn English. That commitment to me is the embodiment of human resilience,” proclaimed Kim Karesh, CEO of Nashville Adult Literacy Council (NALC).
What would you do if you didn’t have GPS on your phone? You’d probably be in quite the pinch most of the time, eh? I still get lost in Nashville on a daily basis. But what if you couldn’t read the street signs your GPS was guiding you toward?
That’s a reality for some adults in Nashville.
For most of us, it seems almost unfathomable that an adult couldn’t read, especially on a basic level, but 21 percent of Tennessee’s adult population is at level one literacy rate. That is, they are unable to read dosages on medicine bottles, street names, etc. Typically, those at a level one literacy are toddlers to kindergarteners.
This isn’t merely a statewide issue, as approximately 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read according to the U.S. Department of Education and National Institute of Literacy.
Since 1982, the Nashville Adult Literacy Council has been tackling this crisis.
On a recent warm Friday afternoon in Nashville, I sat outside a juice bar awaiting NALC’s CEO, Kim Karesh. Upon arrival, she radiated energy and enthusiasm in the most genuine way. Her eyes quite literally sparkled as she spoke about NALC, and they only became wider and brighter the more she revealed.
“I told you, getting me to stop talking about this will be your issue,” she chuckled.
Karesh informed me she was learning disabled as a child, and I have to admit I was a little shocked.
At her school, it was against the rules to take home books, but Karesh told me there was “this girl” in her class who could already read, and Kim desperately wanted to read like her.
“I would sneak home my books to read ahead. I would get so frustrated, and I would cry.” But her mom, who happened to be a teacher, would go over the stories with her at home.
Later, at school, when teachers asked for volunteers, Kim would raise her hand eagerly.
“I had actually memorized the whole story. I had a whole system,” Kim divulged.
However, Kim referred to the memorization technique as a coping mechanism, and explained that this and alternate methods of coping can be seen in others with learning disabilities.
Eventually, her Mom intervened, even when the school didn’t at first believe Kim had any issues. Her Mom was her advocate, and the resources were soon provided for Karesh. Because she had early intervention, Kim was able to tackle her struggles and harness the skills she needed at a young age. Kim went on to be valedictorian of her class, and she holds an undergraduate and master’s degree, along with an assortment of past and present impressive titles. She indeed overcame her learning disability, though she is extraordinarily humble about her various accomplishments.
Many students of NALC didn’t have the advocacy and resources to foster the learning environment they needed.
“That’s what I want NALC to be for students. I want to be their resource. I want to be their advocate. I want to be their safe place to learn,” Karesh strongly stated.
NALC has a one-on-one six-month program, in which one volunteer tutor is assigned to a single learner for a six-month commitment. They also have a “Start Now” program in which volunteer tutors can sign up for one-hour tutor sessions with learners on the waitlist for the six-month program. NALC has both adult American and adult immigrant English learners. There are group classes, GED classes at probation and parole offices and citizenship classes as well.
“What’s really cool about this is that most of our volunteers show up with a need. They have a need for purpose, a need for connection. And then our students are showing up with a need for literature, and it creates this equality where you get to watch these two people fill each other up and it’s a beautiful thing to witness,” Karesh gushed.
Because I’ve been curious about being a volunteer tutor, I asked Kim about the requirements. Karesh smiled almost in a sneaky but glimmery way.
“Here are the requirements *she paused*: patience and encouragement.” She laughed.
We continued to talk about tutoring and her reason for working at NALC. (Also, just to note: Karesh tutors as well, and she tutored before she became the CEO).
“It’s that tired cliché of you get more than you give, but it almost loses its meaning when you say it that way. When I came on board a year and a half ago and I was meeting the tutors, I would say ‘thank you, thank you for volunteering,’ and every one of them would brush me off, and be like ‘stop, you don’t understand, don’t thank me for this.’ And it took me a couple of cycles of realizing that they don’t feel like they’re giving because it’s so rewarding to be a part of this. It’s that phrase you get more than you give, but when you see it in action it takes on a whole new meaning which is really cool.”
Some fast facts:
About $232 billion is lost each year in healthcare costs due to low rates of literacy, as those impacted by low literacy misunderstand health information, dosages, diagnoses, etc.
$225 billion is lost on crime, lack of workforce productivity and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.
More than 65 percent of all state and federal inmates can be classified as low literate.
43 percent of adults with the lowest literacy live in poverty.
Children of parents with low literacy have a 72 percent higher chance of being at the lowest literacy level as well.
This is a vicious cycle. If you can’t read, how could you search for a job? Apply for a job? It would be beyond difficult to fully educate yourself about health, the economy, politics, food, to obtain a driver’s license, to get in touch with far away family members. The list is seemingly endless.
I recently read in a book, Becoming Ms. Burton, coincidentally recommended by NALC’s CEO, Kim Karesh, that most people don’t change their mind on matters by reading statistics and numbers. They change their mind and form new opinions through hearing stories—genuine stories, about real, vulnerable, broken humans. And that is all of us.
When various people asked which nonprofit I was covering this month, I could see the lack of understanding or interest in people’s eyes when I told them. They didn’t seem to grasp the importance of the mission. Perhaps because it’s not a life-saving surgery, overcoming drug addiction or providing the necessities to survive like food and shelter. But we do need literacy to survive in this society.
Literacy save lives. It creates life for us. Literacy bonds us, as we are bound by our words and stories. We relate through books and historical texts. Heck, we text! We email, we tweet, we hashtag everything. Words connect us, words break us. Signs at marches and rallies bring inspiration, as well as anger. Words make us think, question and act. We must have the ability to compose our thoughts.
Listening and speaking is key, yes, but the ability to create a summation of words and present it to others is an extraordinary necessity—an excellent power, in fact. We must document our thoughts, ideas, opinions—our stories.
I once had an English teacher in high school say to the class, initially much to my dismay: “Mary-Margaret thinks in her writing. That’s where she works through things.” I was at times painfully quiet in my younger years, but I discovered I could speak loudly through writing.
Karesh told me about a learner of NALC who had a doctorate in Persian literature, but could not speak English.
“This is a woman who made her life about words, and she’s in a country without language. It would feel like prison,” Karesh said mournfully.
Everyone should have the opportunity and privilege to write, read and make their voice known—everywhere.
NALC makes this possible for all those who enter their organization.
But this nonprofit still has needs. They have the greatest need for tutors in their Antioch location, though they still have plenty of learners on a waiting list in Nashville. They also need supplies and funds for their learners, volunteer tutors, teachers and facilities on an on-going basis.
At NALC, each person—the learner, as well as the tutor—brings his or her needs to the table in openness, even if it takes some time to crack apart the concrete barrier to reveal the vulnerability. I think it takes a grand amount of courage to admit we need help. The students of NALC emit this courage on a daily basis. I think we could all take a lesson from these resilient, brave humans.
A few last words…
“I believe that helping others is our purpose, and there are few things that I can think of that can have a bigger impact than literacy,” declared Karesh.
A recent NALC student-of-the-year said, “When you can read, you can learn anything.”
If you have the ability to use your words (and if you are reading this, you do)—use them, don’t waste them.