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Volunteers needed to help fight illiteracy

September 21, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

Every week, dozens of Washington County adults struggle to learn what many people take for granted - how to read.

Those adults face a number of challenges, from their own fear and embarrassment to finding a place where they can get help.

A shortage of volunteers also has hampered literacy efforts.

The Washington County Literacy Council disbanded in 1994 because of a lack of volunteers, and other groups have seen a decline in the number of volunteers.

Edith Karsay, who has run Trinity Lutheran Church's Community Reading Center for 27 years, said she used to have 60 volunteers and 60 students. Now she has 15 volunteers, and sometimes has to turn away students because there aren't enough volunteers.

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"They tell me it's too big a commitment twice a week," she said.

Karsay said about 25 students take part in the Tuesday and Thursday evening sessions, which are conducted one-on-one.

She said no one is too old to learn, and said she's had students up to age 75.

The Washington County Board of Education offers free classes for adult basic education, including reading and writing, at several locations around the county, said Joy Rath, adult education coordinator. More than 160 adults came to at least one class last year.

No registration is required, and students' reading levels are determined at the first class they attend.

Rath said the board doesn't offer one-on-one tutoring but would be able to if enough volunteers signed up.

"We need volunteers desperately," she said.

Rath and Karsay said they have had students who quit their programs after a few weeks.

"Responsibility is a big issue. People come, and they don't stay, they don't work at it. Attendance is critical. If you come, you improve. If you don't come, you don't improve," Rath said.

Betty Seligmann, coordinator for the basic tutoring program of the Frederick County Literacy Council, said her group has about three or four tutors from Washington County working with Washington County students.

Gauging the percentage of people who are illiterate is difficult, officials say.

"People don't run around saying `I can't read,' particularly adults," Seligmann said.

"These are not people who fill out census forms," said Janet Carsetti, president of the Maryland State Literacy Coalition.

Patricia Bennett, section chief for the Maryland Department of Education's basic adult education programs, said 28,000 adults were enrolled in state-funded basic education programs last year.

A 1992 survey by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 21 percent of the adult population - more than 40 million Americans over the age of 16 - had only rudimentary reading and writing skills. Most adults in this group could pick out key facts in a brief newspaper article, but could not draft a letter explaining an error on a credit card bill.

A subgroup in this category - representing roughly 4 percent of the total adult population, or about 8 million people - was unable to perform even the simplest literacy tasks.

Anyone interested in volunteering or learning with a tutor at the Community Reading Center may call Karsay at 301-791-5092.

Anyone interested in volunteering or taking classes through the Board of Education may call 301-791-4171 or 301-791-4166 to find out the schedules and locations of classes.

The number for the Frederick County, Md., Literacy Council is 301-694-2066.

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