It's estimated that 16-percent of Omaha's population is functionally illiterate. Widen the scope to the surrounding metropolitan area, and some 70,000 struggle with reading.
The Literacy Center, 19th and Harney St., is working to help them, offering free programs for those over the age of 18. “They’re generally testing below the eighth grade level, so this means they’re generally having trouble filling out a job application, reading a food label, or helping their children with homework,” said Executive Director Kirsten Case.
"Illiteracy is one of those invisible issues in our community so you can't look around at the stranger next to you and know if that's something that they're struggling with,” she said. Their student numbers, currently around 400, have nearly doubled in the past year.
And as those numbers have grown, Case, said so has the need for more manpower. “We're hoping to recruit 30 volunteers by the end of this month that will become trained tutors or they can help out with as assistants in our classrooms or help with special projects,” she said.
The centers programs have expanded beyond reading to math and computer literacy as well. “It's important that these programs are ready and accessible to students who are ready to learn so that they can get a job, get a better job, help support their family, support their children's educational journey.”
Case pointed out, many who need help don’t step forward to receive it out of shame. But, she added, “We find they’re some of the smartest and most courageous people we know. They found a way to navigate life without basic skills that we take for granted every day. And we’re very proud of them every time they choose to walk through that door.”
The Literacy Center wants to expand to reach out to those who don’t come to their door for help. “We're working to reach more students in the next year by serving them in the communities where they live and work,” Case said.
To help fund that outreach and the other programs they offer, an Adult Spelling Bee will take place Thursday night at the downtown Hilton. Doors open at 6 p.m. with hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar, with the actual competition starting at 6:45 p.m. Tickets start at $75 and can be purchased at the Literacy Center’s website. “It is basically an opportunity for people in the community to come together to support our cause,” said Case.
Twelve teams have signed up to take part in the spelling bee, ranging from corporations to librarians to journalists. And there’s a twist to this competition. “They can get help from the audience, bribe judges or ask an expert,” Case said, “So it’s a lot of fun.”