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Adult Low Literacy and How The READ Center is Making a Difference

Can you read this sentence? If so, you should take a moment to thank whoever taught you. 

The statistics are staggering. For more than 72,000 adults in the Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond areas, literacy is a struggle.

Low literacy impacts more than just the classroom. Low literacy costs the U.S. at least $225 billion each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue. 70% of welfare recipients report low literacy levels. Additionally, an excess of $230 billion a year in health care costs is linked to the issue. 


This issue hits communities of color disproportionately. While only 48.18% of Richmond is Black/African American, that same racial group makes up 81% of the READ Centers students.

  Today, we want to highlight how The READ Center is recognizing this need in the Richmond area, and is rising to meet it. 

The READ Center is a community-based nonprofit that helps adults with low-level literacy develop basic reading, math, digital and communication skills so they can fulfill their roles as citizens, workers, and family members. The READ Center was founded as the Literacy Council of Metropolitan Richmond in 1982, serving the Richmond community for 35 years. 

I met with Karen La Forge, Executive Director, and, Nausha Brown Chavez, Program Manager, to learn more about the READ Center, their important work in the community, and how we can get involved. 

Nausha Brown Chavez, Program Manager (right) with Student from 2019 Spring Ceremony

Karen began by expounding upon the facts above and explaining how the issue of low literacy becomes a generational one.

 “What we do know, is that if you are a child of a low literate parent, you have a 72% chance of being low literate yourself. A mother’s education is the largest determinant of a child’s future educational success. So when you couple generations of people that have been through Richmond City schools, and may not have received the education that they should, or could have, we are seeing generational poverty. We are seeing generational low education. That’s why those deep pockets exist in Richmond. With the efforts today, of helping those kids moving out of that, the adult education piece is super important. Your parents are your first teachers. If we are not also addressing this piece of it, we will not be successful. You can send as many books or worksheets home as you want to, if the parents can’t read well, and support the child, that process will continue. That cycle keeps churning.” 

The READ Center is meeting adult students right where they are. They offer classes that can expand not only their traditional literacy, but also workable life skills. 

Karen stated:

“We do things a little bit differently. If you come to us and say you want to get your CDL, we are all about teaching to the test. We will be sure, as much as we can, that while you are improving your literacy skills, you are also improving your life skills and achieving those goals. Because at the end of the day you’re an adult. And you need to take care of your family and have a paycheck, stable housing, healthcare, all of those things. You may leave us after that.” 

Nausha stepped in here to talk a little more about the students she works with on a daily basis. 

“We are looking for students who are looking to increase their level of understanding about any subject. We talk about literacy and that subject is so big and so broad. If it’s reading or writing or maybe studying for your drivers license. We are looking for students who are looking to increase those skills. We know that there are a lot of people out there and some of them are okay, with where they see themselves. But there are these other folks, where there is something nagging at them that says I want to be better, I want more.”

Nausha got emotional recounting the details of a recent call. 

” I just got off the phone with a student who is 28 years old and she wants to attend the READ Center so she can help her 7 year old daughter. She said she can read now, I can read well enough now to help her. But I know that she’s getting older and as she gets older, I won’t be able to help my baby. And I just think about the school system and you think about education at 28, that this person is calling us understanding they can help their child now, but not at a fourth or fifth grade level. And this person has a high school diploma.”

“It’s a work in progress. With education, we have been doing the same thing, over and over. We are doing the same thing but the world has changed. “

Nausha Brown Chavez, Program Director

Karen spoke about how they have learned to turn challenges into opportunities.

We discussed their funding structure, which surprisingly includes very little federal or state funding, she said: 

“We receive very little government funding. Probably, 5-6%. And that is only from Henrico and Chesterfield. While the majority of our students are Richmond City, we receive no funding from Richmond. But, because we don’t receive large amounts of federal or state funding, our program can reach people where they are.”

Our students are judged by their ability to read, And there’s a lot of shame and embarrassment for adults who can’t read well. This is something you’re expected to do by the third grade. There are so many of our students that are extremely talented. We have artists, we have musicians, woodworkers, seamstresses. Talents that are amazing”

They have great skills and are valuable and important parts of our community and they should be valued and given the opportunity to improve the skills they want to improve and that’s where we come in.” 

The READ Center facilitated a Financial Literacy class recently at the Market at 25th. They covered topics including banking and budgeting, understanding credit scores, identity theft, computer security, and paying off debt. They also hosted their year end celebration at Peter Paul Development Center and joined the Church Hill community for National Night Out.

The East End Library also plays host to a weekly classes on Tuesday’s and Thursdays from 1-3 pm. The READ Center is registering students now for the fall semester, which begins on September 3. If you would like to learn more about The READ Center’s free classes and tutoring, please call 288.9930.

  As they rise to meet the need in the East End, they need our help! They are currently registering volunteers for their upcoming Volunteer Orientation. 

“When we talk about stepping into communities and helping to build up communities we know that in order to make that community stronger the folks in that community need to be willing to help in some way. So that no one is left behind. We are looking for tutors who can help guide students in their quest for knowledge.” Nausha said.

I spoke to Bryan D. Stogdale. Church Hill resident, former tutor and current Board Member of the READ Center. I asked Bryan to tell me a little bit about his experience. 

My involvement with the READ Center over the years as a volunteer tutor and as a member of the Board of Directors has been such a rewarding experience. The READ Center enriches the lives of adults in our community. As a Church Hill resident, I am so happy to see the READ Center’s presence in our community with classes offered at the East End Branch Library, engagement with The Market at 25th, a year end celebration for students and their families at the Peter Paul Development Center, and field trips to the re-enactments at St. John’s Church. The READ Center is truly changing lives through adult literacy in Church Hill!” 

When I asked Karen if her end goal was to work herself and The READ Center into planned obsolescence, she said.

“I am always hopeful we will go out of business at some point. That time does not seem imminent, because the current SOL scores are still a challenge, but,

“This is solvable! We aren’t looking for a gene, we don’t have to go to another planet we know how to solve it. Its an investment of time and money and we know how to fix it.”

Karen La Forge, Executive Director The READ Center

Tutor Orientation Dates:

September 11 @ 6pm
September 18@ 10am

Training will be held on October 12. You must complete an Orientation session before attending training. You can register for Orientation on the READ website. Tutor Orientations are held at The READ Center Office.

We will keep you up to date on all of their programs. Additionally we will be featuring a “Student Voice” section. This will share the stories of adult learners impacted by The READ Center’s hard work.

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