Peninsula READS: After 50 years, looking to the next chapter

Joyelle Saunders, Peninsula READS executive director, right, works on a reading chart with Casey Guditus, program specialist. (Photo by Kelli Caplan)

Imagine not being able to read a book to your child. Or process simple directions from a doctor. Or, being able to understand a bank statement or a report card.

There are 30,000 residents on the Virginia Peninsula who are not functionally literate, meaning they live in a world where words mean very little to them. They cannot pass an exam to get into a GED program.

“Imagine filling up the Hampton Coliseum three times. That shows how many people we’re talking about,” says Joyelle Saunders, executive director of Peninsula READS.

The non-profit organization recently celebrated 50 years of working to reverse the region’s literacy problem. Great strides have been made, Saunders says, but there is much more to be done.

“We are constantly trying to help the community understand how important this is,” she says. “Our focus is really on families and the benefits adult literacy gives to a family. We want to make sure they know how important literacy is, not just to adults but to the entire family.”

Not being able to read not only affects the family, but also the area’s workforce and tax base. If people can’t read, they likely cannot work or hold a decent-paying job. It can also take a toll on a family’s medical and financial well being.

“If you can’t read, your health suffers because you are not able to digest information. So many people can’t go to the doctor by themselves because they don’t understand,” says Saunders. “So many different circumstances and stories add up to people not being literate.”

Peninsula READS offers basic literacy classes to American-born adults seeking to improve their reading skills. The organization also provides English for Speakers of Other Languages program to foreign-born adults striving to read, write and speak English fluently.

The people who come to Peninsula READS tend to be driven and on a mission to succeed regardless of where they come from or what their circumstances. Most have lofty goals they want to achieve.

“We are here to support them in the process,” Saunders says. “The typical person comes to us with lots of reading goals. These folks have goals to be able to converse with their child’s teacher, to find sustainable employment and to read bedtimes stories to their children.”

Others come to Peninsula READS to get assistance with a language that is completely foreign to them, so that one day they will know enough English to pass the test to become a U.S. citizen.

There are about 90 tutors who work with the learners on a regular basis. All of the tutors are volunteers and have completed orientation and training. Saunders says the organization is always in search of more tutors.

“Their level of commitment is really high,” she says. “We really appreciate the commitment our tutors give to the learners. They are really valuable to our program.”

Last year, 190 learners were tutored. There are group sessions as well as one-on-one sessions.

“We expect to surpass that this year, probably with more than 200,” Saunders says.

The success stories, she says, are many. One learner was able to obtain his business license. Another, his driver’s license. And yet, another became a citizen and voted. Little victories and huge victories. They all work to help the learners improve themselves and their lives. 

“They want to learn,” Saunders says. “It can be so frustrating when what you want to do doesn’t match what you are able to do.”

The free tutoring sessions take place at the Peninsula READS office on Fishing Point Drive, at the city jail and at area libraries. The learners represent “all corners of the Earth,” Saunders says. Bringing the learners together also creates a community of support and respect, regardless of their politics, religion or cultural background. 

“They help each other,” she says.

Over the last five decades, Peninsula READS has always been true to its mission. The organization will keep plugging along, one word and one motivated learner at a time until adult illiteracy is eradicated.

“That is our mission,” Saunders says. 

Peninsula READS
Address: 11832 Fishing Point Dr., Ste. 200, Newport News, VA 23606
Contact: Joyelle Saunders, executive director
Phone: 757-283-5776

About Kelli Caplan 74 Articles
Kelli Caplan is mother of three children and a friend to all who know her. She use to spend a lot of time in her SUV, driving to schools and pediatricians, but her children have graduated from high schools. Now she can be found at WalMart and Harris Teeter, playing pickleball or cycling. She loves to try new recipes and new authors’ books. Her favorite foods are green (lettuce, broccoli, pickles). A former crime reporter for the Daily Press, Kelli has been writing for Oyster Pointer as long as she has been able to hold a pencil.

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