Leslie Gelders' mother made a suggestion back in 1985.
“I was looking for a volunteer opportunity,” Gelders said. “My mother was a librarian, and she suggested I become a tutor and help an adult learn to read. I went through the training course and began volunteering with the Norman Literacy Council.
“I found working one-on-one with a student to be rewarding, and I became very interested in the problem of illiteracy and its impact on society.”
Today, Gelders is the director of the Literacy Resources Office at the state Department of Libraries. In that department, she has been involved with the fight against illiteracy in a professional and volunteer capacity since 1987.
“Leslie's creative, and she's not afraid to try new ideas,” said Bill Young, public information manager for the state Department of Libraries. “She has a proven track record, and her enthusiasm is infectious. I think that's why local literacy councils have been willing to embrace many of the new efforts and initiatives that the Oklahoma Department of Libraries has started.”
Gelders grew up a reader in a reading family. She was surrounded by books.
So she was really unaware of the issue of illiteracy until she began her volunteer work.
“Like most people, I was shocked to hear statistics like ‘one in five Americans can't read,'” Gelders said. “Very early on it became obvious to me that Oklahoma's volunteer literacy community is made up of individuals with a lot of heart.
“These were people helping people for no other reason than trying to make a difference in a person's life. It's inspiring to work with these volunteers every day.”
Varying degrees of success
Certainly adult new readers have varying degrees of success, she said. They also enter study with different goals, ranging from wanting to get their GED to simply wanting to be able to read a book to their children or grandchildren. Some want better reading skills to get a better job or to take college courses in a chosen field.
“So success depends on the person,” she said. “Even reaching what some would consider small goals can be a great success for people who have struggled with reading their whole lives.
“We're there to give learners the assistance they need to reach whatever goal they have.”
When a person approaches a literacy program for assistance, the program does an intake assessment to identify the student's reading level and determine the beginning point of study, Gelders said.
“We also ask if they have ever been told they have a learning disability, or if they were ever placed in special education classes,” she said. “All of this information can help the tutor help the student.
“Not every student will be able to eventually pick up a James Joyce novel, but we believe every student can make strides.”
And Gelders has seen some great strides in the literacy area.
The Literacy Coordinator position used to be a single contract worker, but now there are three people staffing the Literacy Resources Office at the Department of Libraries.
They've branched out into early literacy programs with the Ready to Learn project that puts books in the hands of preschoolers, and they've recently begun a Health Literacy Initiative since there is a direct correlation between low-reading skills and a person's health, she said.
“We've developed great partnerships to help us along the way,” she said. “OETA and the Kruger Foundation help us with Ready to Learn. The state Department of Health co-sponsored our first Health Literacy Summit last fall. We work with DHS to provide training to TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) classes.
“The state Legislature has also given great support by providing an annual appropriation that funds grants to local literacy councils to support their services. And we've been fortunate to be able to take advantage of federal grant funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.”
But even with strides made, the journey is ongoing.
“We have to keep waging this fight because it hasn't gone away,” she said. “Some of the people we work with have been told by friends, family and educators that they'll never be able to read or master particular skills. We're here to say ‘Yes, you can,' and we're here to help.
“That message is as important today as it's ever been.”