‘A powerful natural force’
Can’t read. Can’t write. Most of the time I don’t know my left from my right.
Lamont Carey recited a poem with that refrain on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam several years ago — a performance shown again at the recent Miller Recreation Center community meeting in Salisbury. The poem tells the story of a young man who gets passed from grade to grade because of his athletic ability, only to suffer a career-ending injury.
“Now I’m asking y’all. What are my options? I can’t read.”
The character in the poem may be fictional, but the problem of functional illiteracy is very real.
A program to address that challenge could be headed to the West End Plaza, thanks to the efforts of The Chamber (not the Rowan Chamber of Commerce) and the generosity of Rowan County government. Chris Sifford, Anthony Smith and Kenneth Hardin made a presentation to commissioners Monday about the Tsunami Development Literacy Program they’d like to operate within the former mall. They are focussing on space once occupied by an athletic shoe store across from Books-A-Million. The volunteers described an after-school program that would help children in grades three through five master reading and have access to computers and the Internet — things to keep their lives on the right track.
“Some of the things you see taking place in the streets start from folk who can’t read,” Sifford said.
The Chamber’s members made a strong case for the need. The majority of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, they said. Inability to read well correlates with high dropout rates, dependence on welfare and health problems.
“Poor reading skills trap people and communities in vicious cycles of poverty, crime and social disadvantage,” Smith said.
Hardin said they chose to include “tsunami” in the program’s name to signify the intention to be a powerful natural force for good.
Jim Sides, chairman of the commission, expressed 100 percent support of the concept but wisely said he’d need more details before he could commit the space.
It may take more than volunteers to staff and equip a program taking on this kind of challenge. But if the county does keep and develop the mall, it could perform a real service to the West End community and the entire county by housing a literacy program for children at this pivotal stage in their academic development. Several programs are already trying to fulfill the need for mentors, after-school care and literacy — Communities in Schools, the YMCA and Rowan Public Library come to mind. They could also be invaluable partners in such a project.
Commissioners have promised to allocate up to 20 percent of the plaza’s space to nonprofits. If the Tsunami Literacy Program can present a sustainable business model, it is an ideal candidate to locate there.