Cleo had a secret.
The 54-year-old resident of Mount Vernon, Ala. shared that secret in an episode of the “Secret Lives of Americans” documentary series screened Thursday morning at Williamsburg Regional Library.
“My secret is I didn’t learn to read,” Cleo said. “I went through 12 years of school, and I didn’t learn to read.”
Hosted by Williamsburg-based nonprofit Literacy for Life, the screening was followed by a panel discussion among local adults on their own literacy journeys, Literacy for Life tutors and community leaders.
“It’s a very critically important issue that needs to be addressed,” said Joan Peterson, executive director of Literacy for Life.
“There are thousands of people in Greater Williamsburg who need help with reading, writing, math and speaking English,” Peterson said.
Thursday’s event celebrated International Literacy Day, Sept. 8, a day first proclaimed 50 years ago by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. And on Friday, Aug. 9, Williamsburg mayor Paul Freiling proclaimed Sept. 8 as International Literacy Day in the City of Williamsburg and commended the work of Literacy for Life.
What started as an adult literacy program at the College of William and Mary in 1975 has become an independent nonprofit organization that, in the 2015 to 2016 year, served more than 800 adults.
Literacy for Life offers both adult basic education – such as reading, writing and math – and English as a second language. Other programs include Destination Graduation for Williamsburg-James City County high school students, a Work Skills Program for adults and the Health Education and Literacy (HEAL) program.
Panel member Meiber Gonzalez came to the United States from Venezuela. She’s learned English through Literacy for Life for the past few years with help from local tutor Jim Wentzel, also on the panel.
“Before that I was afraid when the people say to me hello,” Gonzalez said.
Now, she said, she can communicate with people in English: nurses, doctors, her son’s teacher, to name a few.
Through tutoring at Literacy for Life, Williamsburg native Miguel Gray, 36, worked to earn his GED.
Gray said he was expelled from high school at 17. He always wanted to earn his GED, but at 18, Gray became a father and his main focus became his daughter.
Through a chance encounter, Gray found Literacy for Life, where Len Calabrese began tutoring Gray in math.
“I, for a long time, had this fear of failure,” Gray said to the audience.
He said he failed the GED exam twice, barely, but he passed on the third try in 2012.
Now, Gray regularly shares his story and advocates for Literacy for Life, an organization that helped him realize there are people “fighting for you, and pushing for you constantly,” he said following the panel.
Gray said he always had a vision for his life.
“Literacy for Life has helped me get there and made it possible.”
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.
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