In Lafayette County, 20-25 percent of adults are unable to fill out a job application. They are unable to read the words.
“They have learned coping mechanisms for not being able to read, and they have gotten used to that – getting by what a road sign means, what a menu is by just looking at pictures and things like that,” says Sarah McLellan, executive director of the Lafayette Literacy Council.
This non-profit strives to change that. For the 24 years that the council has been established, they have worked to improve literacy in and around Lafayette County through five core programs.
In a community with a big gap between lower and higher income families and their literacy, the council provides children with skills they need to read sufficiently and reaches out to adults in the community to help them reach their goals. And they do it all for free.
“The first [program] is the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Program, and that is where every child in Lafayette County, birth to age 5, receives a book in the mail every month,” said McLellan.
The council is responsible for registering children for this program, and they promote it in the community. Council members can be found at a variety of health fairs and at the organization More than a Meal every Tuesday night.
The second of the five programs is the Children’s Book Festival coming up in March. Every first grader in the county, home-schoolers included, are provided with a different book every year. This year’s selection is After The Fall by Dan Santat.
A week of festivities occurs at local schools in March where “the kids usually dress up like characters in the book,” said McLellan. “They have a parade, and then we go back to the classrooms, and read the book to the kids, and then we hand the book out.”
The week ends when the author comes to the Ford Center that Friday to read the book to the children, participate in various activities, and sign books at Square Books Jr. the rest of the afternoon.
Additionally, in their fourth program, the council works with many organizations to organize the LLU Reads Coalition to get every student reading proficiently by third grade.
With the children covered by their first four programs, the council also caters to adults in the community through their Adult Basic Literacy and Education program.
“My long term goal is to open up my own salon,” said Chauncey Pegues, an ABLE program participant.
Pegues dreamed of graduating from cosmetology school, and with the help of the Lafayette Literacy Council, she did last December.
“You need to know your worth,” she said. “If you don’t know anything else, you need to know your worth, and you don’t need to settle.”
When Pegues felt like her food service job on the Ole Miss campus wasn’t going anywhere, and she was frustrated with balancing work, nightschool, and her children, she found the Lafayette Literacy Council at the perfect time.
With the help of Barbara Wortham, Sara McLellan and others, she earned her GED and eventually graduated from cosmetology school.
The ABLE program, with six learners that have passed their GED, is an unconventional educational program in which several coaches are trained to do one-on-one coaching with a learner.
“Being one-on-one is what works best for the learners,” McLellan said. “Not being in a classroom, not being embarrassed to ask certain questions.”
Pegues said the best part of the council was “just the point of them showing that they cared, and they want to see me be a successful person, and just putting in time because it is hard to find people that volunteer their time freely just to see another person be successful.”
McLellan hopes to spread awareness about the organization. “I think a lot of people that live in Oxford don’t [notice illiteracy] but it is there,” she said. “There is a large gap between the lower income and the higher income.”
The organization encourages those struggling with literacy to reach out for help. Anyone can call the council to set up a welcome interview to determine a baseline and then work from there.
“I recommend Oxford Literacy Council to anyone that is willing and ready to better themselves,” Pegues said.