Illiteracy remains a serious problem in the U.S., even though the issue has been overshadowed in recent years by the economy and the war on terror. Even data documenting changes in literacy in each state is hard to attain.

The most recent comprehensive report—”The National Assessment of Adult Literacy”—was released in 2003, yet many literacy efforts benchmark their progress based on those findings. Still, nonprofits in a number of Southern states are making progress in helping more people learn to read using ESL and GED programs, intensive tutoring, training, and workshops.

The Literacy Council of Buncombe County in Asheville, N.C., founded in 1987, has more than 200 volunteer tutors who give over 15,000 hours annually and provide literacy tutoring to more than 350 students. The council’s focus is on programs for adult education, English for speakers of other languages, and the Augustine Project, which provides, free of charge, highly trained tutors to work one-on-one with low-income children who read below grade-level. Ashley Lasher, executive director of the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, notes that nearly 20% of adults in the county do not have a high school diploma or GED, and one in 10 cannot read at or above a basic level. Lasher explains that her organization is just one of many working to improve reading skills across North Carolina: “There is a North Carolina Literacy Association of organizations such as ours working all across the state. Some of our organizations are large in terms of budget, students served, and volunteers, others are quite small. But we all strive to teach reading, writing, and English language skills to those most in need.”

In Mississippi, the 2003 study by the National Assessment for Adult Literacy showed somewhere between 5% and 22% of adults in Lafayette County lacked “basic prose literacy skills.” Meridith Wulff, director of the Lafayette County Literary Council, says, “I receive calls every week—and sometimes every day—from adults seeking help for themselves or someone they know. We know that improving a person’s ability to read usually brings improvements in other aspects of a person’s life: their ability to get a job, how their kids do in school, and so on. So it is essential to improving the individual’s quality of life and the quality of life in our community.” The Lafayette County Literacy Council’s programs include a grade-level reading initiative that helps to ensure kids read at their grade level, and a partnership with the local United Way on the campaign. Other initiatives include a two-year pilot reading intervention program called Reading Rockets, targeted at second graders reading below grade level and repeating first graders, as well as a partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, with workshops this fall for families who receive Imagination Library books to help teach parents how to maximize reading in their home.

South Carolina has what Eileen Chepenik, executive director of Trident Literacy Association, calls, “a critical problem.” Trident Literacy serves Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties, and in the tricounty area there are 60,000 adults without high school credentials, and as many as 20,000 of them have less than a ninth-grade education. “Low literacy skills are directly related to higher welfare costs, increased healthcare costs, and higher incidences of incarceration. Moreover, they perpetuate the generational cycle of illiteracy and poverty,” says Chepenik. Trident Literacy works with adults to improve their educational functioning levels. “Many earn their GEDs and WorkKeys Career Readiness Certificates, and get jobs. Each person’s improvement is a success story, and we have so many of them,” says Chepenik. While Trident’s successes don’t keep up with the school dropout rate, its programs enable its students to make dramatic improvements to their literacy levels and enhance their future prospects. Trident Literacy’s core programs are Basic Literacy, GED-prep, English as a Second Language, and Basic Computer Use.

Working with parents and children is key to getting literacy rates up. “Parents are the children’s most important teachers. There’s a greater likelihood a child will be unable to read and write if the parent is challenged as well,” says Gregory Smith, executive director of the Florida Literacy Coalition Inc. The lack of visibility about illiteracy is often what prevents adults from seeking help. “Illiteracy is not a reflection of your intelligence. [Literacy] is a skill like any other skill,” Smith says. He believes the best spokespeople for literacy “are the people who have been there—through the voices of those who have gone through programs and been successful.” The Florida Coalition created its Adult Learner Essays book to provide these voices. “It is a catalyst, or motivator, for people to not just write an assignment for class but also to be included in a publication.”

Giving kids the motivation to read comes in many forms for the literacy councils and coalitions. The Lafayette County Literacy Council sponsors a young adult author to speak at the Young Authors Fair as part of the Oxford Conference for the Book, held every March. “It is important to us that we reach the kids who are not already readers and, hopefully, help turn them into lifelong readers,” Wulff says.

Literacy problems also reach into the wealthiest counties in the region. The Literacy Council of Williamson County, Tenn., was founded in 1986 when a man walked into the library and asked a librarian, “I can’t read. Can you help me?” At a loss, the county librarians were referred to the Nashville Adult Literacy Council, which helped them form their organization. Twenty-seven years later they’re still combating illiteracy in one of the state’s most affluent counties. Many of the adults in Williamson County have high school diplomas, but are incapable of competing in today’s job markets because their level of literacy is so low, according to Rita Dozier, executive director of the Williamson County Literacy Council. Dozier estimates close to 9,000 people in Williamson have less than a ninth-grade education. “Most of our GED students are working toward being accepted into higher education or getting a better job,” she says. “Our ESL students who are making Williamson County their home are anxious to be a part of our community.”

Author and Bookseller Support

Author support of councils and coalitions makes a difference in the fight for literacy. “We are lucky enough to have an incredibly vibrant literary community here in Oxford,” says Wulff, “which makes reading a big part of our local culture. We’re even luckier to have a number of authors who live here and feel passionately about the issue of literacy and get involved.” The Lafayette County Literacy Council also receives support from the independent bookstore Square Books.

To raise funds, the Literacy Council of Buncombe County hosts an annual Authors for Literacy Dinner & Silent Auction, where a bestselling author donates his or her time to be the keynote speaker of the evening. This year’s event, on August 23, will feature National Book Award–winning author Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain, Thirteen Moons, and Nightwoods). “In the past, our event has featured Elizabeth Kostova, Sara Gruen, John Hart, Ron Rash, and Jill Conner Browne,” says Lasher. The Literacy Council of Williamson County just hosted its ninth Author! Author! event, where multiple authors keynote to raise funds for the council. “The funds from Author! Author! are crucial to the ongoing work of the Literacy Council,” notes Dozier. Local authors, like bestselling Lisa Patton (Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter), do more than keynote and emcee events; they also volunteer evenings to help teach classes for the council.

Booksellers are also hard at work in the fight against illiteracy and often partner with literacy councils and nonprofits. Many are committed to finding ways to give back and foster reading in their communities. Becky Quiroga Curtis, children’s book buyer and children and young adult events coordinator for Books & Books in Miami, notes, “As a company, we are very committed to literacy.” The store’s efforts include Sunrise Little Free Libraries—a community service project in the city of Sunrise to put free books into the hands of underprivileged children—as well as donating book baskets to nonprofits and passing along extra ARCs to homeless shelters, prisons, and underprivileged schools.

Valerie Koehler, owner of Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, is committed to both literacy and aliteracy. To that end, Blue Willow partnered with the charity Family Point Resources when the bookstore’s neighborhood library moved too far away for patrons who walked there. “We have a large multifamily neighborhood adjacent to the shop and to my neighborhood. There is a huge disparity in income, lifestyle, and education. Family Point identified the need to build a library within [the charity’s] building so we decided to kick-start the library. Our customers came through with donations of new books, used books, cash, and best of all—time. Time to build the library, build the collection, and spend time with the children. It makes me smile every time I walk into that space,” Koehler says. Blue Willow has also partnered with the Literacy Council of Fort Bend County for Reading Between the Wines. This year they brought authors together with donors for an evening of talks, food, and book signings.

For other booksellers looking to create partnerships with organizations for literacy projects, Koehler advises that stores should just start the conversation. “I believe it is my responsibility as someone who is fortunate in both education, health, and wealth to help in whatever way I can,” she says.