“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right…. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”  – Kofi Annan

What is it like for a person who doesn’t know how to read?

ginger-1What would it be like for you if you didn’t know how to read?

I am 81 years old.  I have been a Sinsinawa Dominican sister for sixty years.  My first ministry was to teach first grade.  I learned to teach reading.  After those first five years I was sent to teach high school.  As the years moved forward I had many different ministries, but what I have been most passionate about and most committed to all of these years is to help persons who can’t read learn how.

Why? Because I have learned what persons who can’t read experience.  They are labeled “stupid”.  Many of them believe they are while others know they aren’t, but still they know that is what others think.

I have worked with many men over the years and have helped them to be able to read.  Formerly incarcerated men, young men in jail, men who lived in the projects where I worked.  After an evaluation that takes only a few minutes, I can determine if the person will be able to read.  After I make that assessment, I can help most individuals learn to read and write after just two forty- five minute sessions!

Many of the individuals begin to cry!  They can’t believe it.  They say that they may never have been in jail or prison or feel so “stupid” if they had only learned to read when other kids in their first grade learned.

I have learned that most of these individuals saw that they weren’t catching on like the rest of the kids. They started feeling “stupid”.  Others saw them as “stupid”.  So, it was “fight” or “flight”.  Many said they would become the class clown.  Others said that they would do anything not to be called on so they wouldn’t look and feel stupid.

ginger-2At the end of the year, they were passed on to the next grade.  And then on and on until they got into too much trouble and were kicked out of school or dropped out. This continues to be one of the most tragic situations in the public school systems.

I continue to do whatever I can to work with individuals who can’t read.  Their entire life is changed.  I would encourage anyone who would like to help, to do so.  What is critical is that you know how to teach reading.  Tutoring is great to assist individuals who need some help, but if a person doesn’t know how to read, it is critical that they learn how and then it is unbelievable to see them become a NEW person.

One of the young men at the jail learned to read.  I asked him what was one thing that he felt was good since he had learned to read.  He said  that when he is on the bus he now can read the street sign that is the signal for him that the next stop is his stop.  He never knew when/where to get off.  He then started citing some of the other things…like the signs on the store fronts.  One guy told me that he could now go out with a date to a restaurant.  He was always too embarrassed because he couldn’t read the menu.

I was asking a young man in jail to tell me about himself.  I was supposed to be helping individuals prepare for possible employment.  I wanted to find out what the individual might be interested in and then hopefully guide them that way.  He said I don’t know what you want to know. I said, just tell me things you might like to do, tell me things you like, what interests you, etc…  He didn’t know how to answer.  He said I am 22 years old and you are the first person who has ever shown any interest in me…and then he started to talk and went on and on…

Sr. Ginger Phillips is a Sinsinawa Dominican who has devoted her life to her ministry. In addition to teaching men to read she has also helped them with job training and new business creation.  Much of her volunteer work has been through St. Leonard’s Ministries in Chicago, an organization that provides housing and support services to formerly incarcerated men and women.  Ginger loves Spanish tapas and makes the most delicious chocolate nut clusters you’ll ever taste.