Program Report: Durham Literacy Center – Reginald Hodges

A few years ago club member Gaston Warner, who was with the Duke Divinity School but about to leave to join Zoe Ministries, gave us a presentation about that organization’s mission to empower orphans in  Africa. In parts of Africa where disease, war, famine and other causes left children to fend for themselves, Zoe goes into communities where these children are already living and brings them together in supportive groups to feed and protect themselves from violence and exploitation.

One of the questions that Gaston got from the audience was whether there was anything like this going on in the US. Without hesitating a second Gaston exclaimed, “Of course! That’s what gangs are all about.” I remember this vividly because I think I was one of many in the audience stunned by this response. My naïve conception of gangs was that they were minor-league crime syndicates formed to wreak havoc on the community and each other.

It was an “ah-ha” moment for me but not the kind that brings a smile to your face. The simple fact is that our community has more than its share of virtual orphans that have been neglected or ignored by their families and our institutions and must fend for themselves in a hostile environment. For these children the chances of living a productive life are left largely to chance and their odds of being ground up in the indignities of our criminal justice or welfare systems is much higher than it ought to be.

Beneath the sheen of our revived Downtown and high tech economy are some things that we cannot be proud of. We have the highest poverty rate in the Triangle and then there is the horrific statistic that 44% of our students cannot pass end of year grade level proficiency tests. That doesn’t include the number that drop out of school every year.

The good news is that heroes step forth or are created in such circumstances and we got to meet two of them at our July 9th meeting.  The first was our speaker and new member Reginald Hodges, the current Executive Director of the Durham Literacy Center, an organization over 25 years old that focuses on adult literacy. Mr. Hodges grew up in our neck of the woods and is a graduate of North Carolina Central University, but he brings an international understanding of the problems of poverty from his experience in the Peace Corps and 35 years of non-profit human development programs. During his career he has worked in over 35 countries. He returned to North Carolina in 2000 and took over the leadership of the DLC in 2004.

Mr. Hodges shared estimates that our community has over 20,000 people that are functionally illiterate. Currently the DLC can handle about 500 clients a year through the efforts of a small staff and volunteers that are trained in a phonics approach to reading that has proven to be effective. This makes a dent in the problem and proves that it can be done. However, it clearly must be expanded.

The second hero we met was Chris Williams, a graduate of the DLC program. Mr. Williams spoke movingly about how he had coped early in his life to avoid the embarrassment of his lack of reading skills by keeping to himself. He also spoke with disdain about being pushed through the system and getting a diploma even though he was functionally illiterate. A city employee with the Department of Public Works, he made it clear that the importance of reading to him was more than just the obvious practical application but also how it made him feel about himself for taking this courageous step.

New President Don, who introduced Mr. Hodges, wisely deferred presentation of his strategic plan for the coming Rotary year to allow plenty of time for this presentation. However, it will be no surprise that community literacy will be a big part of the plan and for the longer term strategic plan. In other words, we will all have a chance to become heroes in Durham’s war on illiteracy.

It should also be no surprise that we already have a few heroes on that front including Past President and current Assistant District Governor Newman Aguiar, as well as Ellen Reckhow and Barker French, who have been leaders in the East Durham Children’s Initiative, and Todd Taylor who is leading a tutoring program for the Club at YE Smith School. Tutors he has already recruited include immediate Past President Arthur. Mr. Hodges also cited Rotarian and commercial real estate broker Seth Jernigan for putting together the deal to purchase the DLC’s new home on Chapel Hill Road, which will greatly expand their capability.

The organization’s website is at https://sites.google.com/site/durhamliteracy/, where you can also find the moving video that Mr. Hodges showed at the beginning of the presentation.

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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