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Literacy Group Copes with Cuts in County Assistance

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – Every day Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo and Erie County tackles high illiteracy rates in the city. But now it has become an economic challenge for the organization as it faces major county budget cuts.

Thirty percent of adults living in Buffalo read below a fifth grade level. That's ten percent higher than the national average. Tracy Diina, executive director of Literacy Volunteers in Buffalo, says they are a small agency dealing with a large illiteracy rate. Diina says there are a variety of reasons for the higher rates in Buffalo.

"I can't point a finger at anyone specifically, but in many of the older people it was the pre-learning disability diagnoses era," Diina said. "So many of these people had undiagnosed learning disabilities. We also have people who dropped out of school. They learned at different rates, were possibly put in special classes or they just didn't learn.

"Some people hide it their whole lives," she said. "It's amazing the people we see that can read at only a second grade reading level."

But as 2003 approaches, Literacy Volunteers faces a financial dilemma. Diina says the newly adopted county spending plan slashes her budget by 50 percent.

"It was very troubling because statistics indicate that 76 percent of people on public assistance have low literacy levels -- hence the reason why they are on public assistance," Diina continued. "We contract with the Erie County Department of Social Services to work with those individuals. We had hoped to continue to work with, but it appears they only want us to work with them half as much."

Literacy Volunteers is trying to figure out new ways of operating with less money next year. Diina says the agency relies on 400 volunteers and now more than ever they will be needed to assist with some of the day-to-day operations.

"There are certain staff functions that we have volunteers performing and that's the only way we can keep ourselves sustaining and still continue to provide services," Diina said. "Every year we serve between 600 and 800 Erie County residents. This cut in our funding will mean that we will probably serve less."

Diina says she believes their North Buffalo location has the best adult literacy library in the county. Literacy Volunteers is also busy teaching people how to speak English. Diina says they are serving students from 75 different countries. Each country is marked on a large world map at the agency's office.

"I don't speak English very well," said Gaston Pantala, a foreign student from Haiti. "So I am here learning English, reading and writing."

Volunteer Dick Thompson is teaching Gaston to how read and write. Thompson says they meet twice a week.

"He's progressing quite well," Thompson said. "I'm amazed at the amount of speed that he has been able to capture the English language. He had no formal education whatsoever until he came here. Essentially, this is the first he has every had."

Thompson says he's helping Gaston write his "life story." Learning English is a vital part of helping the foreign students gain employment. Linda Velazque, assistant director of Buffalo's Literacy Volunteers, says some of those who learned English were already professionals in their own counties, but now are employed in new local jobs.

"It runs the gamut of whatever employment is out there. They're doctors at Roswell, they're professors, they could be dishwashers or cooks at a restaurant," Velazque said. "They could be a doctor in their own country, but they can't work here as a doctor so they end up working at a restaurant.

"We give them survival skills," she said. "There's a reason why they are here. We are just a better country to live in."

Literacy Volunteers offers the privilege of reading to adults who never had the opportunity to learn. Diina says it allows them to become contributing members of the local economy. But she says without proper funding the process will fade away.

"We're not stupid. We understand that we need to sustain ourselves," Diina said. "It's just that it is very difficult, and what makes it particularly difficult is the lack of community buy-in and support, as well as support of elected leadership. This is a really serious issue that needs to be tackled before anything else."

Diina says with about 100 students on a waiting list to learn how to read they need to begin to "plug" the budget hole. She says for the first time ever, a local advertising agency will donate free advice to help kick off a Literacy Volunteers fundraiser this January. Diina says they will try to raise $20,000 and are seeking more private donations. She says they will also work to establish "revenue generating activities" for some of the services they provide.

"I just don't understand how people fail to see the relevance of literacy levels and how our region is being stymied economically because we don't have people to fill jobs that might exist," Diina said. "Jobs that other organizations are getting lots and lots of money to bring here. What happens when we don't have people to fill those jobs? It's a huge economic development issue that our people here have low literacy levels."

Diina says literacy must become a priority or the community as a whole "will suffer."