In the square, bookshelf-lined room, Virginia Acevedo paused, placed her hand over her heart and smiled.
“I’m from Cuba, but now I’m from North Carolina,” said Acevedo, whose eyes exuded a grateful patriotism that spoke louder than her words.
She moved to Craven County two years ago, after living in Miami since 2014.
She gained her citizenship in December of 2020, an accomplishment that means everything to her. An accomplishment that she would not have been able to achieve without the help of the Craven County Literacy Council.
Acevedo is still a student at the Literacy Council, working on her English reading and pronunciation, because she still faces another obstacle—getting a better job.
“I need change, I need one opportunity to open the door for work, to practice my English, I want another job,” Acevedo said. “I need change, I am here and little by little I am learning every day.”
Since moving to the area, she worked in a nail salon, but is seeking other employment, often a challenge for those with lower rates of literacy.
In Craven, Jones and Pamlico Counties, 19,000 adults can not read higher than a third-grade level.
“Literacy is kind of the foundation of everything we do. We need to be able to read and write in order to understand information, gather information and critically analyze the situation. I think that is just an important part of being an informed citizen,” said Dr. Todd Cherner, director of the Master of Arts in Educational Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. “The ways we interact in our daily lives with individuals, we need to be able to read and write.”
In Craven County, 12 percent of people lack basic literacy prose, slightly lower than the state average of 14 percent. Counties with the lowest percentages were places like Dare, New Hanover and Johnston counties while Halifax County was the highest at 28 percent.
In the U.S., illiteracy costs businesses and overall society $225 billion dollars each year due to loss of workforce, productivity, crime and unemployment.
Literacy is a vital indicator of the health of the overall community, affecting things like crime rates, poverty, healthcare, and of course, job growth
“Adults with higher skill levels have better health outcomes, which results in greater productivity in the workplace, and so they are better able to participate in community life,” said April King, executive director of Craven County Literacy Council. “Because they have higher skills, they are taking better care of themselves, have greater productivity, less absenteeism.”
These factors explain the statistic that every $1 invested in adult literacy yields $7.14 in return.
The largest demographic of students at the Craven County Literacy Council is Burmese, however, they have students from all over the world, King said.
King said for foreign-born and American-born students that come to the Craven County Literacy Council, it takes an event happening in their lives such as having a child in school and in many cases the loss of a job.
“Sometimes it will be because they are getting ready to lose their job and they are being passed over for promotions,” King said. “It used to be that especially in rural North Carolina, you could make a sustainable living and wage, whether it be farming or fishing. Now it is not like that.”
Functional literacy, being able to navigate society with low literacy rates based on experience, is becoming harder and harder to achieve with the increase of technology--a trend Acevedo knows all to well.
King shared the story of one student, a housekeeper, who came to the Literacy Council because her employers wanted to communicate through texting and she needed to be able to read their messages and type responses. Applications for even seemingly low-level jobs have to be filled out online now, said King.
Though traditionally an agricultural area, Eastern North Carolina’s largest economic sector of employment is the retail trade which employs 32,524 people at an average weekly wage of $606.57. This is closely followed by healthcare and manufacturing.
“Workforce is the number one factor of most businesses right now whether they are looking to build a new place and come to a new location or expand an existing location,” said Karl Zurl, the regional operations director for the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Division of Workforce Solutions. “When we talk to the economic developers…quality of workforce is the top thing most business leaders keep in mind when making decisions about where to locate and expand their operations.”
He said that many larger companies who pay higher wages tend to move to the urban areas around the Triangle and Charlotte and seek higher-skilled, highly educated workers.
In Eastern North Carolina, many of the available jobs do not require a higher level of education and this could deter people from pursuing further credentials in the area, he said.
“That impacts when a developer, commercial or industrial company is looking to come into the area, they want to know about the workforce. They want to know, just like with Hatteras, how easy is it going to be to train that extra 500 new employees,” said Dana Outlaw, Mayor of New Bern.
The City of New Bern and Craven County works to increase literacy rates and the quality of education in the area through various programs and will continue to investigate new ways to do so, Outlaw said.
In 1988, Craven County Partners in Education was founded by a $10,000 grant from Carolina Power and Light, now Duke Energy. It aims to enhance the educational experience in Craven County Schools and provide resources that might otherwise not be available.
Outlaw said that both himself as mayor and the city support all types of programs and organizations from Craven County Community College’s Workforce Development Program, to the Boys and Girls Club, to the Literacy Council because he understands the importance of literacy and education to the overall future of the community.
Cherner said that while various community nonprofits help support increased literacy rates, research shows that investment in pre-k education is the best determinant of success.
“There is a huge amount of research that says the earlier we can get our children good literacy foundations and good schools and start building that background knowledge—that is going to be the best intervention and support that we can offer our students and our citizens,” Cherner said.
Children raised in a more educated household hear hundreds of thousands of more words than those raised in less educated homes. The greatest indicator of a child’s success is the reading level of their parents. Investing in a child’s future at a young age can give them the foundations that will support them throughout life, Cherner said.
Adult students coming to the Literacy Council are setting an example of the importance of education for their children, said King.
“We are not where we need to be; we can always do more,” said Outlaw.
King first got involved in the Literacy Council because she had always enjoyed reading and wanted to share her passion. She quickly realized that for the students at the Literacy Council, reading was not for leisure, but a critical indicator of their future.
“We are talking survival and we are talking changing lives,” King said.
And Virginia Acevedo’s life was changed.
Julia Masters, Sun Journal