MARSHALL - Literacy isn't just about having the ability to read a book - it affects many aspects of one's life, say local literacy advocates.
"The lack of literacy skills really affects not just being able to pick up a book, but healthcare, financial growth as an educated consumer, voting..." said Charlotte Harris-Hoffstrom of Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota. "Without it (literacy), you can't really take the next step in any direction."
Increasing literacy skills not only helps the individual but the community, said Pat Thomas, the coordinator for Adult Basic Education Southwest Minnesota. "A better workforce is going to provide a greater tax base."
Thomas said increasing literacy skills is vital now more than ever.
"Our literacy level is going down," said Thomas. The current workforce pool is largely made up of baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, and with their retirement, this well-educated cohort will leave holes in the workforce.
Our primary workforce will have to be supplemented by immigrants and refugees, she said.
"We have to find ways to increase the skillset of our current workforce," she said.
Thomas said 14 percent of American adults older than 16 read at or below a fifth-grade level and 29 percent only read at the eighth-grade level. Among those with the lowest literacy rates, 43 percent live in poverty.
There are a variety of ways people can increase their literacy.
"We are promoting the use of distance learning programs that can be accessed through ABE and the Southwest Literacy Volunteers," said Thomas. "You can further your education on your own time and in your own space. A lot of our services have to be face-to- face contact, but because of work, family and just life, there is often no time to attend regular classes."
"We try to meet that gap," said Harris-Hoffstrom. "Tutors have a flexible schedule and can meet with the individual one on one."
Harris-Hoffstrom said working with other agencies maximizes everyone's effectiveness.
"We support each other," said Harris-Hoffstrom, who emphasized that her organization is funded by an Otto Bremer grant.
"There is a culture of collaboration in the community of Marshall," Harris-Hoffstrom said, "and we are seeing a lot of positive outcomes. This community is moving forward."
Harris-Hoffstrom said her organization partners with the Marshall-Lyon County Library in offering family literacy programs, including Science Saturdays, which have reached more than 200 adults and children this year.
The organization defines literacy to encompass reading, writing, speaking and mathematical analytical and technology skills. For more information on Southwest Literacy Volunteers call 507-401-7337 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit literacyswmn.org.
Thomas said that 10 percent of Lyon County residents older than 25 lack a high school diploma or GED.
ABE assists individuals who want to study for the GED test. Thomas urges anyone who wants to get their GED to do it now before the test rules get changed as of January 2014. The test will be changed to align with current high school standards, be more expensive and be offered totally online. Interested individuals should call the ABE office at 507-537-7046 or e-mail email@example.com or visit marshalladulteducation.org or southwestabe.org for more information.
"Get it done now," Thomas said.
Thomas said she appreciates the funding the state has given the adult education program.
"It's one of the best in the nation," she said.
"Minnesota is one of the most proactive states in the nation in its investment of its public money into education," said Thomas. "The legislation and the public do understand the need."
Harris-Hoffstrom said it costs more not to fund it.
Thomas said agencies are "thinking five to 10 years down the road, and that's what our learners are doing - looking ahead for their future."