In 1984, Project Read Utah launched with the goal of providing one-on-one tutoring services to adults with low-level literacy skills, thereby strengthening families, improving communities, and breaking the generational cycle of illiteracy. Operating out of the Provo City Library, the organization envisions a literate Utah County where everyone has access to learning opportunities that enable them to reach their full potential.
A Silent Problem
According to Shauna K. Brown, executive director of Project Read, illiteracy is a silent problem. More than 28,000 adults in Utah County read below a 4th-grade level, and about 12 percent of adults in Utah County—nearly 50,000—can’t read at all.
Funded largely by donations and a few government grants, Project Read is working hard to help adults become literate by teaching basic reading and writing skills, including how to use technology. These vital skills help their students handle everyday situations more effectively.
“A big issue that we see with literacy is that it links to chronic health issues,” says Brown. “For example, adults with low literacy skills struggle to manage their diabetes because there’s so much reading that is involved with managing the disease. Once people improve their literary skills, their health improves because they’re able to understand the health system and see their primary care doctor.”
Each year, Project Read works with about 100 adult literacy students to complete about three hours of tutoring per week, usually in the form of two 90-minute sessions or one 3-hour session. “We consider Project Read a bridge or a transition program,” says Brown. “Most people don’t just want to learn how to read—they want to learn to read for a specific reason, whether it’s for better employment or wanting to help their kids.” The organization also helps students from other countries to prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language to help them get into college.
Most students stay with Project Read until they are at about a 9th grade reading level. After that, they can go on to an adult high school program, workforce training, or job training programs. “Once they reach that level, we feel like they’re not learning to read. At that point, they’re ready to use their reading skills to learn other things,” says Brown.
From Welfare to Successful Business Owner
Brown initially started out as volunteer tutor at Project Read. “My student was a young mom with two little girls. We would meet in the Orem Library. She was so passionate and incredibly smart, but she couldn’t read, so that was holding her back,” she recalls. The woman’s was determined to get off of public assistance and provide for her daughters.
Twenty-one years later, Brown’s former student now runs her own business in Pleasant Grove with several employees, and both of her daughters are college graduates. She has one grandchild and another on the way. “I know that both of her grandchildren are going to know how to read because their grandma thought it was important,” says Brown.
Dedicated volunteers like Jessica McDowell play an indispensable role in the organization’s success. “I came across Project Read at a time when I didn’t have a lot going on,” she says. McDowell planned to be a volunteer tutor for about a year, but seven years later, she is still going strong.
“The main reason I stayed is because I just love my student,” she says. “We’ve become good friends. We’ve spent three hours a week together for the past seven years.”
McDowell and her student do a variety of activities together such as reading, writing, grammar practice, vocabulary practice, and comprehension practice. One of McDowell’s favorite memories is when she read The Diary of Anne Frank with her student. “Obviously, that’s a very challenging book,” she says. “For my student, it was one of the first books she read that was meaningful and impactful for her. I feel like that was a turning point for us, where she realized that reading can open her mind to other cultures and ideas.”
During their seven years together, McDowell has seen her student get her driver’s license, start classes at Utah Valley University, and develop a love for English classes. “Seeing her progress in that way has been really meaningful and rewarding for me,” says McDowell.
A Whole New World
Project Read also helps immigrants learn English and navigate a new culture.
Anna Baasanbyamba emigrated from Mongolia to the United States. Before attending Project Read, she was a single mom going through a divorce. “At the time, I was trying to adapt to the American culture and the language. My English wasn’t that great,” she says.
Baasanbyamba first learned about Project Read when she saw a flyer on the community bulletin board while she was at the Provo City Library with her children. “Since English is my second language, I always feel like I need to be improving my English. I’m always looking for ways to improve myself,” she says. “Project Read was great for me because of the one-on-one tutoring and the fact that it could work with my schedule.”
Baasanbyamba says that Project Read not only helped her with her English, but they also helped her in her personal life. “There were a lot of forms and documents that I had to fill out due to my divorce. They helped me comprehend what I was reading and helped me fill out legal forms,” she says.
Baasanbyamba was a student a Project Read for about 10 months. When she first joined the program, she was performing at a 7th-grade comprehension level, but by the time she graduated, she was performing at almost a 10th-grade comprehension level. Since completing the program, Baasanbyamba has graduated from BYU–Idaho with her bachelor’s degree in business management. And she is getting ready to graduate from Utah Valley University with a master’s degree in finance and planning analytics.
After seeing her daughter’s incredible success, Baasanbyamba’s mother also enrolled in Project Read. “My mom was really excited for me when I graduated from Project Read. She now wants to improve her English and is really excited to be a student.”
Project Read changes lives, but it also benefits the community as a whole. According to Brown, adults who improve their literacy skills are able to get off of public assistance, find better employment, and spend more money, which directly impacts the economy.
There is also a link between low literacy and crime. The Literacy Center states that 75 percent of incarcerated adults in state prison lack a high school diploma or have low literacy skills.
“The prisons are doing a lot of work to try and increase literacy levels because the chances of recidivism and ending up back in prison decrease,” Brown explains. “Literacy is just tied to so many other things in society.”
Brown says that improving literacy helps create a ripple effect because people can gain the necessary skills to help improve their lives. “Our students are so passionate and smart. They want to be successful, yet they’re just missing this key piece for whatever reason,” she says. “When we can help them improve these skills, everyone benefits.”
To volunteer, donate, or get help, visit projectreadutah.org.