To Be Inspired — Volunteer

June 17, 2011

I went to be inspired, and I was.

Hands On Greater DC Cares held their annual conference, called the Impact Summit, on June 15 in Washington, DC. I think everyone has an obligation to give back, so I wanted a closer look at an organization and at people who live that philosophy every day. I wasn’t disappointed. Volunteerism and partnerships were the buzzwords of the day. The people I met are doing truly great work.

Although the opening session started with some not-so-good statistics, it was followed by an outline of issues facing the area, along with potential solutions and some success stories. I felt as if I was receiving an insider’s view of the District, and it was very interesting.

Washington, DC facts on file:

The poverty rate ranges from18 to 35 percent.

Unemployment rates are 15 to 23 percent.

Up to 21 percent do not have high school diplomas.

However, DC is a knowledge town. Unemployment is only 3 percent for the college-educated over the age of 25, according to Sylvia Benatti, University of the District of Columbia professor, who also listed the above stats. It was mentioned later that there used to be quite a few trade schools in the city, but the focus changed to information, and many of the schools closed. A number of people cited the need for a renewed focus on manufacturing and trades.

Tough issues facing the District include education, health and employment, as with most urban environments. Transportation was also raised.

Dr. Bruce Anthony Jones, University of South Florida professor, noted that urban school leadership is in a perpetual state of crisis. He said we need to focus on retaining our leaders and developing a collective purpose.

Dr. Pierre Vigilance, George Washington University professor, stressed that “health is not medical, it is social, and it is environmental”. He said that only 7 percent of the population lack health insurance, but we don’t have good health outcomes.

A later session focused on the economy. After identifying barriers, panelists were asked to identify solutions and emerging trends that are making a difference. All three panelists stressed the need for partnerships and working together.

Lindsey Buss, President of Martha’s Table, described how farms outside of DC are helping with the recent increase in need for food. He said we need to continue to look outside the region for solutions.

Stephen Glaude, Director of Community Affairs in the DC Mayor’s Office, said we need to recognize our interdependence on outside regions, as well as our interdependence within the city wards. Just five months into the new city administration, Glaude said that they are making progress in some areas, albeit all the problems in the news, but that some programs need review. He also stressed that government, as a rule, is not quick. (Don’t quote me on that; I can’t remember his exact words, but I do agree that governments are not known to be quick responders. That’s just the nature of the beast.)

Michael Ferrell, Executive Director of the Coalition for the Homeless, agreed. He noted the successes he’s had collaborating with other service providers, particularly in the area of moving people into transitional and permanent housing.

According to Buss, housing should come first. It’s very difficult to get people to focus on education or employment when they’re worrying about where they’re going to stay for the night.

Throughout the day, collaboration kept coming up. Many nonprofits partner with other groups for services they don’t or can’t provide. Most organizations also rely on volunteers, but volunteerism seems to have risen to a whole new level. Now we’re talking about the need for skilled volunteers. Rather than just coming in to do what’s needed, many volunteer positions now have an explicit work plan with goals. Many nonprofits couldn’t get by without these people, or at the least would have a difficult time.

That’s what I think is so interesting about Greater DC Cares. They’re connected all throughout the city, with the government, businesses and nonprofits. They train and steer volunteers to appropriate opportunities, and also help businesses either determine what type of volunteers they need or how to encourage employees to volunteer where needed. They do a lot of other stuff as well.

The people I met are doing such good work. When I asked, “what do you do?” responses included: “We provide vehicles for people.” “We run after-school programs for at-risk kids.” “We provide transitional housing.” “We support young people in high school and through their first two years of college.” “We feed people.” Wow.

A bunch of awards were given out, which I won’t mention here. You can go to their website: You should, because the winners have great stories.

What really struck me though throughout the whole conference was the attitude of those in attendance. I was delighted to be among such a large group of positive and happy people. Although they’re trying to solve daunting problems, I think they know they’re making a difference, and that’s what matters in the end.

Issues that Matter: Illiteracy Costs Us All

December 12, 2010

On a typical day, many of us read the morning newspaper while waking up with coffee. Maybe we leave a short note for our spouse or kids before we leave the house. Perhaps we sign our child’s school paper. Maybe we read and write e-mails and texts from our smart phone. While driving to work, we read the road signs without even thinking about it.

When we reach work, many of us begin reading documents almost immediately, whether its instructions, reports or correspondence. If we go out to lunch, we peruse the menu before selecting. On the way home from work, we may stop at the grocery store, list in hand.

I take those routine tasks for granted, as I’m sure you do as well. Now imagine not being able to read or write. No newspaper. No smart phone. No notes or signing school papers. No work documents. Likely no driving. Ordering the same thing at lunch. No grocery list. The limitations are enormous.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 774 million adults are illiterate in their native language. The number in the US is 30 million; two thirds of those are women.

This is not a post about immigration. Undoubtedly, a certain percentage of the illiteracy rate is due to illegal immigration. This is not a post about human trafficking, although a large percentage of trafficking victims are also illiterate. (See my last post on human trafficking.)

This is a post about Americans who cannot read and write.

ProLiteracy defines literacy as “the ability to read, write, compute, and use technology at a level that enables an individual to reach his or her full potential as a parent, employee, and communty member.”

UNESCO defines literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

So why is the ability to read and write so important, other than the convenience and necessity of every day life? Many, if not most, socio-economic issues are connected to low literacy:

–More than half of our inmates can barely read or write. According to First Book, an American high school student drops out every 26 seconds. If we could increase the male graduation rate by just 5 percent, we could save up to $49 billion in costs related to crime.

–Illiteracy adds about $200 billion to the cost of health care annually. If you can’t read about disease prevention or even read how much medicine to take, it’s much more difficult to stay healthy. This increases hospital visits and stays as well as use of emergency services.

–Illiteracy contributes to problems of abuse. If you can’t read about your rights, how can you advocate for yourself? Literacy can play a major role in reducing gender inequity.

–Over $225 billion is spent on lost productivity and crime, directly related to literacy. First Book sites how the U.S. Department of Education “expects the literacy gap in America will produce a shortage of 12 million qualified workers in the next decade.”

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) sponsors the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) every decade or so. In the last assessment, undertaken in 2003, 1.1 million people couldn’t even take the test because they are NON-literate.

Monetary costs are, of course, much easier to quantify, but we don’t want to forget about the human cost. Illiteracy limits the capacity of adults and children in so many ways and makes them dependent on the government, their communities and even the kindness of strangers.

How can you get involved?

Find the literacy council nearest you.

Become a tutor. The councils will train you, and give you teaching materials.

Volunteer your time in other ways. Most have volunteer boards and largely volunteer staffs, and would welcome your expertise.

Attend a local fundraiser. Most are community events.

Donate money. Resources are always tight.

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives formed the Adult Literacy Caucus. Urge your member of Congress to join/support this Caucus.

Literacy Resources


First Book 

American Library Association

National Center for Family Literacy

Almanac of Policy Issues  –

America’s Literacy DirectoryNational Center for Education Statistics (NCES) National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) 

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