There are an estimated 30 million people over the age of 16 in the United States who read no better than the average elementary school student.
And, according to Lumpkin County’s Adult Literacy Program, more than 3,000 of them live in Lumpkin County.
On Wednesday, educational, business and public leaders, including Georgia’s first lady Sandra Deal, met on the campus of North Georgia College & State University to address through an adult learning summit the issue plaguing the North Georgia county.
“Reading to me is like oxygen,” said John Gerheim, the literacy program’s director and lead instructor for Lanier Technical College’s GED program in Lumpkin County. “Once we already know how to do it, we forget about it. Once you know how to breathe, oxygen is like second nature. There are a lot of other valid issues in our county that need to be addressed, but this is one I’m passionate about.”
Literacy, he said, has a direct link to an educated workforce, something business officials pointed out during the summit as a draw for economic development.
“Literacy produces the ability to earn a high school diploma through a GED,” said Gerheim. “Having a GED is just the first step to being able to build a quality life for an individual and their family.”
His group estimates that about 19 percent of Lumpkin’s population 25 years or older did not graduate high school. About 15 percent of the county’s population lives below the poverty line.
“Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone in the country could read and read well?” said Deal. “It would make a huge difference in our employment and our attitude.”
The literacy program aims to inform the community’s leaders of the issue and hopefully they will provide a catalyst to change on the local level.
“The fact is they probably didn’t know what they now know about illiteracy in this county and how many people don’t have a GED,” said Gerheim. “(The summit) is to raise awareness, to build an increased passion to do something about it. That’s the purpose of today.”
The literacy program in Lumpkin County provides free individual tutoring sessions, while Lanier Tech’s GED program provides free instruction while providing partial scholarships for eligible students.
“We can’t neglect our adults and young people who dropped out of school for various reasons,” said Deal. “Sometimes it’s easier for them to stay home and not get that education. What we are doing is trying to give them another opportunity.”
And, Gerheim said, Lumpkin is not the only county in the region with these issues and these resources to help curb the problem.
“We face this throughout all these counties,” he said. “We’re devoid of jobs, we’re working with people that don’t have high school diplomas and we’re working with people that can’t read. ... This process is available to any county that wants to do it — to bring this awareness to it.”