As my year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA draws to a close, and I prepare to take on the role of Resource Development Manager at Blue Ridge Literacy, I find myself reflecting on a moment in my initial interview with AmeriCorps for the BRL position. The woman interviewing me asked me what drew me to Blue Ridge Literacy, as opposed to other AmeriCorps opportunities. I replied, that because of my exposure to parts of rural Kentucky, I appreciated the importance of literacy, and believed it was a worthwhile cause to dedicate a year of my life to. I was being honest in that interview, but when I think back on that interview now, it truly makes me appreciate how my understanding of literacy, and of its importance, has deepened.
For starters, my original concept of illiteracy was limited entirely to native-born English speakers. While it’s true that there is a serious problem with native-born illiterate adults in this country, BRL opened my eyes to the already substantial and ever-growing community of refugees and immigrants who need help not only with reading and writing English, but with speaking it.
This past year has also given me an increased appreciation for how illiteracy actually impacts lives. I had always thought of illiteracy as more the inability to read books or write letters to distant friends and relatives. However, after coming on board here, I began to notice the myriad of ways I use my literacy skills in my day-to-day: reading road signs and nutrition labels, reading and signing my lease, writing notes and reminders in my phone, to name a few. When you add speaking and comprehension to the definition of literacy, the list of ways I depend becomes mind-bogglingly long, ranging from simply being comfortable saying hello to my neighbor to running meetings and calling my bank with questions about my bill statement.
Finally, this year has given me the utmost respect for people who are working so hard to improve their futures through literacy. Before my AmeriCorps service, yes, I had seen the impacts of illiteracy, but I still primarily viewed the issue as an abstract statistic. Now, when I think of adult illiteracy, I don’t think about numbers. I think about the dozens of incredible people I see every day, working tirelessly to improve their lives and the lives of their families through learning to read, write, and speak the incredibly complicated and nuanced language, English.
Last year in that interview, I understood on an intellectual level that literacy was important, and knew vaguely that it was still a problem in the US. Essentially, I knew just enough to be willing to commit a year of my life to the cause, but not much more than that. One year later, I have a far deeper and more refined understanding, and due to that understanding, I am proud to be extending my commitment to the cause for more than just a year.