Literacy Center tackles illiteracy in Omaha with spelling bee

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September 20th, 2012

Omaha, NE–A staggering amount of adults over 18 in Omaha are struggling with basic skills like reading and writing. In an effort to shore up awareness and financial support, the Midlands Literacy Center in Omaha is hosting an adult spelling bee, taking place tonight.

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On Wednesday, roughly seven adult students sat in a small classroom reciting vowels and their sounds. Some of the students have learning disabilities, some are learning English as a second language and some simply hadn’t received a proper education.

Pat is a 56-year-old transplant from Gulfport, Mississippi. Today, he’s at the Midlands Literacy Center attending literacy classes. “They had 30 to 40 children in the classroom, and some teachers they didn’t care if you get it and some of them didn’t care if you did,” he said.

Teachers and volunteers teach students the basics of writing and reading. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

Pat is what the center calls functionally illiterate—he cannot read or write. He said he made it all these years by either faking it or recruiting friends to help him fill out job applications. He said when he was eventually able to read blueprints on job sites, it motivated him to tackle his illiteracy a year ago.

“For once in my life I wanted to learn how to read. For I won’t have to be afraid of anything somebody throws at me.”

Pat is one among 70,000 Omaha residents who read and write below an 8th grade level. That’s nearly 14 percent of the population. Data for the rest of the state of Nebraska is scarce.

Midlands Literacy Center is a free program that said its in it for the long haul. Demand for its services has nearly doubled in the last year. The center teaches around 400 students currently.

Executive Director Kirsten Case says teachers and mentors work with students sometimes for years to get them to functional literacy. The center provides all books, materials and even bus passes for the students; students whose ages range from 18 to 80.

Nikolas attends class at the Midlands Literacy Center. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

“Maybe they’re older and their spouses passed way and that was the person who used to read the mail and pay the bills or read the recipes,” Case said.

“And they don’t have that support anymore and they’re on their own. The motivation for each student is different, but at the end they know they need these basic literacy skills to get to where they’re going.”

Case said adult illiteracy is not just a personal problem, it’s a community problem. She said illiteracy contributes to crime, poverty, poor healthcare and unemployment.

“We know by providing adult education services that we can provide a pathway out, opportunity and hope for those individuals,” she said.

But some students, Case said, are weary of their potential.

Contestants will participate for the coveted “traveling trophy” at the 5th Annual Adult Spelling Bee. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

“For some of our students, this is the first time somebody’s told them they’re smart and that they can do it. We had a student that actually had stopped coming for awhile and we called to talk to him and let him know that you have great potential and we really want you to come back. And he even told his probation officer that he wanted to come again because of that, we’re the first people that ever told him that he was smart.”

Tonight, the Literacy Center hopes to put a spotlight on the issue of illiteracy in the community. The 5th Annual Adult Spelling Bee is being held at the downtown Hilton in Omaha. A dozen teams of three will compete for what Case called the “traveling trophy.”

The teams are made up of volunteers from local companies, libraries and schools. Case wants not only the community to come out, but those who are struggling with literacy. Those people who were like Pat.

“I don’t want to do the same things over again, I want to be the person that I should’ve been a long time ago. I might be too old to get there,” laughed Pat.

“But yes, I would like to work overseas, but to work overseas I’ve got to be a lot smarter than I am now,” Pat added.

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