Picture the stress of a job interview. It's a job you desperately want or need, and your first task is to fill out a job application. Next comes the interview, but first you have to hand the interviewer the application. Yet when he looks down at the piece of paper, he notices it's blank save for a scribbled name on the top of the page. The interview is, for all intents and purposes, dead in the water.
For many Baltimore citizens this image is a reality. They lack the necessary reading and writing skills to fill out a document such as a job application or to understand an instruction booklet, skills that most of us take for granted.
Without these basic skills, it can become difficult, if not impossible, to find a quality job that will support the individual and, in many cases, his or her family. The result can be that the individual continues to collect welfare assistance, or in some cases turns to crime to help pay the bills.
For her part, Mary Blair sees this scenario--and illiteracy in general-- as a social ill, and one that negatively impacts the city and its inhabitants.
So when Blair, executive director of divisional and regional programs for the Johns Hopkins Office of Development, was approached to get involved with Baltimore Reads, a city-based organization that teaches people how to read and get back to work, she decided this would be her chance to give back to the community.
"I wanted to get involved with a nonprofit organization that had a social mission in Baltimore, as opposed to an arts mission," Blair says. "I live in the city. I wanted to be part of something that had a real chance of changing somebody's life. And if you teach a person to read, you open a door that was shut before. It's a great way to make a difference for someone who really needs it."
For the past three years Blair has served on the board of Baltimore Reads Inc., a nonprofit agency whose mission is to expand the learning opportunities for non-reading and low-literacy adults and their families.
The agency was started in 1988 with a staff of two and now has 20 full-time and 16 part-time staff members and a budget of $1.5 million, 6.5 percent of which comes from United Way contributions. Baltimore Reads operates The Reading Edge, which offers after-school reading tutorial programs for grades one through three, and The Ripken Learning Center, which is a welfare-to-work program serving adults. The agency also collaborates with a network of 32 citywide agencies, which combined have taught more than 45,000 Baltimore adults how to read.
Yet, Blair says, it's not just teaching people how to read that makes Baltimore Reads such a valuable asset to the community. It's that it empowers people with the necessary tools to go out and look for employment.
It does this by also offering job-finding assistance, such as teaching them how to prepare a cover letter and a resume, instructing them how to conduct themselves during an interview and providing proper clothes for the interview.
"Baltimore Reads focuses on accountability by putting people back to work," says Blair, a former college English professor. "Learning how to read can help folks get their legs back under them and get going, which means off welfare and back on track in their lives."
By giving to the 1998 United Way Campaign for Johns Hopkins University, Hopkins employees are supporting such agencies as Baltimore Reads.
"Giving through the United Way can really make a difference," Blair says. "The more support Baltimore Reads has, the more people it can reach.
"It's in all our interests because it improves the quality of life in the city. Some people think that people at Hopkins live in an ivory tower, outside the community, but I don't believe that. The health of the city is too tied to the university for that to be true."
Lily Kadonoff, director of development and marketing for Baltimore Reads, says that the 1990 census stated that more than 200,000 adults in Baltimore city used literacy services, and that more than half the city's population fell below the poverty line, another sign of low literacy in that education is often tied to income levels.
Kadonoff says she has seen firsthand how organizations like Baltimore Reads have turned lives around.
The typical individual with whom her agency works, she says, is a single African American woman with more than one child who has dropped out of school for a variety of reasons and just doesn't have the skills needed to get a job in our technology-based society.
"It's really a cycle of low education interest, which came from their parents because they didn't value an education," Kadonoff says. "And if they weren't encouraged to go to school, they just wouldn't go, or they got bored, or in some cases teenage pregnancies took them out of school. But now we're empowering people to get off assistance. We give them skills and information that allow them to have more control of their lives as both a parent and a worker."
But with more funds, Kadonoff says, Baltimore Reads can not only reach more of these people but also provide a better service. "We want to offer more job assessments, more job coaching and improve the technology systems that we can offer to our learner," she says.
By teaching young people how to read, both Kadonoff and Blair say they hope to break this cycle of poor education.
"When you can't read, you can't learn about anything beyond yourself," Blair says. "You're just confined to your immediate experience. But a democratic society like ours requires an educated citizenry in order to function properly. You can't grow if you can't read."