Non-profit provides empowerment through literacy across the Valley

Once a month, I make the trek across East Campus and down a paved hill to Wal-Mart, where I stock up on necessities to keep in my dorm.  It’s an enjoyable time, reading all the different flavors of crackers and scents of shampoo I could buy.  If I fall ill, I make my way to the pharmacy aisle and analyze what vitamin or syrup could fix my ailing.

My shopping may pass quickly and easily, but for 12% of the adults in Harrisonburg-Rockingham County, making decisions about what food or medicine to buy can prove daunting.  3 in 25 can’t read the labels.

Over 30 years ago, Skyline Literacy Coalition was formed to address adult language proficiency issues in the Shenandoah Valley.  Beginning as a network of volunteers who offered individual English tutoring, Skyline has since grown to encompass multiple programs that cater to around 250 students annually.

Traditionally, the non-profit has provided aid to adults at or below a fifth grade reading level in their “Basic Literacy” course.

“The basic literacy, I think, is the most challenging thing that we do,” said Executive Director Elizabeth Girvan.  “It takes a lot of tenacity.”

Tutors work to cater their lessons to individual needs.  Girvan described the story of a student who began basic literacy courses in her old age.  The grandmother wanted to gain enough confidence with writing to send letters to her grandchildren, who lived far away.  Skyline tutors worked with her one-on-one and focused on how to craft a meaningful letter.

Aside from literacy improvement for native English speakers, Skyline has developed new programs over the years including ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), GED preparation, and citizenship test preparation.  These programs allow the non-profit to adapt to Harrisonburg’s role as a refugee resettlement location.

One in five families in Harrisonburg speak a language besides English at home.  ESOL classes are provided for speakers of languages ranging from Spanish to Kurdish and aim to increase opportunities for non-native speakers.

Once a working knowledge of English is acquired, legal permanent residents can attend preparation courses for their citizenship test.  Trained volunteers go over every aspect of the test in a 40-hour class, complete with a mock interview.

As most students come from low-income backgrounds, Skyline aims to keep prices low, if not free.  A large volunteer network makes this goal possible, with trained volunteers logging over 12,500 hours annually.  Skyline also receives government funding.

“About 40% of our funding comes from federal and state grants, which makes me a little nervous,” said Girvan, laughing.

Since 1987, Skyline has made significant progress toward its vision:  “A community where adults are empowered by literacy skills to be self-sufficient and to participate in the workforce, education and civic affairs.”

I made the windy journey to Wal-Mart last night, and as I carefully selected a responsible brand of dish soap, the sound of children yelling in Spanish echoing through the aisles reminded me how empowered I am to have the fluency needed to make those decisions.

Providing proficiency to others is empowering and enables learners to engage in self-determination more frequently, two major concepts of social work.  Skyline Literacy proves that literacy goes far beyond the supermarket; it can remove barriers to an entire personhood.



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