In the 21st century economy, the ability to read is a fundamental requirement. A person who either is completely illiterate or functionally illiterate or a community that has a high illiteracy is at a distinct disadvantage socially and, more importantly, economically.

That’s why the work of Project Literacy here in Danville and Pittsylvania County is so important to the region’s economic rejuvenation.

The latest statistics paint a somber portrait of the local population. According to data, almost one in five residents — 18 percent — is illiterate, meaning they essentially cannot read at all. When those who are functionally illiterate — who can’t balance a checkbook or read a recipe or a newspaper — are included, the percentage is even higher. By way of comparison, the national rate of illiteracy is 14 percent of population.

Project Literacy was founded in Danville in the mid-1960s as the Danville Reading Center. Since then, its team of dedicated volunteers has been attacking the illiteracy problem one person at a time, notching small victories along the way whenever a program graduate conquers his inability to read or passes her GED test to obtain a high school degree long thought to be out of reach.

According to Ann Sylves, president of the Project Literacy board of directors, the need for their services is as great as ever. Earlier this month, she told the Register & Bee of their need for more tutors. Currently, there are 10 tutors working with 18 students, but the group could easily take on 10 more volunteers, which would allow them to double the number of students in the program.

Tackling illiteracy in the region is a multi-pronged effort.

Project Literacy, which works only with adults, gets its students to a fourth-grade reading level and then hands them off to the Adult Career and Education Center to work toward the completion of their GED.

According to Sylves, the reasons folks come to Project Literacy are varied.

Some older individuals want to be able to read their Bibles or the daily newspaper. Parents want to be able to read to their children, realizing that illiteracy can be passed from generation to generation. Others come because they want to get a job or try for a promotion, only to find their functional illiteracy is holding them back.

For decades, it was possible for an individual with a limited ability to read and write to maintain a decent lifestyle. Raising tobacco or working at Dan River Mills or in the furniture-making industry didn’t require high educational skills.

But those industries are gone forever, and Danville and Pittsylvania County are making a concerted effort to attract high-skilled, high-paying jobs to the area. Someone who is illiterate or functionally illiterate simply cannot fully participate in the new economy Danville and Pittsylvania leaders are building.

Look at the industries that have announced they’re coming to the region in just the last year: precision machining, high-tech fiber manufacturing, research and development, specialized packaging production. All are fields that require both intellectual and physical dexterity, but no matter how skilled someone is with his hands, literacy — or the lack thereof — will hold him back.

That’s the challenge Danville and Pittsylvania County face as leaders push to modernize the regional economy.

Literacy is tied to everything Danville and Pittsylvania need to confront. From job training to health care, from economic development to attracting new residents and entrepreneurs — a community that is literate is a community that is healthy and thriving.

Conversely, a high rate of illiteracy, combined with functional illiteracy, is a symptom of a community that has problems. Dire problems. Crime thrives where there is illiteracy. Social dysfunction thrives where there is illiteracy. Economic stagnation thrives where there is illiteracy.

This is a problem we, as a community, need to acknowledge, confront and defeat. For someone who’s illiterate, it all begins with a desire to change. For someone who’s willing to help both the individual and his community, it all begins with Project Literacy (www.DanvilleLiteracy.org).

Take that step today.

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