Read4Life: a daughter's inspiration to eliminate adult illiteracy

Most children take their bedtime stories for granted. They start school knowing nursery rhymes and fairy tales read to them by their parents from children’s books.

Most children take their bedtime stories for granted. They start school knowing nursery rhymes and fairy tales read to them by their parents from children’s books.

But Shalaya Morissette, a Georgia Gwinnett College business student, was different. Her mother struggled with literacy and was never a confident reader. She was among the nation’s 42 million functionally illiterate – those with the inability to use reading, writing and computational skills in everyday life.

Without the opportunity to graduate from high school, her mother never learned the necessary life skills she needed to help her get ahead. Chances are, we all know someone like her – someone in a “grey area” where little help seems available – as the problem isn’t limited to a select group, and it is not going away.

As a 10-year-old, Morissette realized her mother was a reluctant reader and could not help with homework, understand labels on prescription medications or follow a recipe. But it was not until she was an adult that she fully understood how her mother suffered from reading challenges. And that was when she decided to do something about it.

“Although my mother wasn’t a strong reader, she was my biggest champion and instilled in me the value of education,” Morissette said. “That’s what drove me to persevere and look for a solution to help adults fully develop their reading skills.” 

As a result, Morissette and four other GGC business majors, Adam Herbert, Kathy Cheng, Sasha Ruiz and Elizabeth C. Smith, created Read4Life! – a program targeting what Morissette considers the “lost” demographic: adults who either did not pick up strong language skills early in life or do not consider themselves to be illiterate to the point where they would seek out assistance from existing programs.  

The program was created as part of a social business plan competition held last October as part of the University System of Georgia (USG) Social Business and Microcredit Forum.  It won third place among 38 colleges and universities, marking the first academic trophy earned by GGC in a state-wide competition.  At a March 3 USG workshop, the team was one of two selected to vie for a $50,000 business investment in the 10-week Village Capital-Atlanta funding competition.

“The support I received from my teammates and mentors, Dr. Robert Anservitz and Dr. Douglas Johnson, was amazing,” Morrisette said. “Everyone brought project ideas to the table, but we went forward with Read4Life! because it addresses a social problem with far-reaching implications.” 

Morissette said her teammates were on board from the start, especially Cheng and Ruiz who have personal experiences with the issue. English is a second language for Cheng, and she wishes Read4Life! was around when she moved to the United States. Ruiz’s mother was also a reluctant reader, and her experience was remarkably similar to Morissette’s.

“The fact that three people on our team have been affected by this issue highlights the gap that exists between school-based and community literacy programs,” Morissette said. “Having a ‘safe’ place where struggling readers feel comfortable and encouraged to experience the joy of reading is vital to their success.”

Morissette said she believes the learning process has to be supportive and creative.  She also said that relevant books make a big difference when individuals are learning to read. For example, adults who have been functionally illiterate or reluctant to read for their entire lives would likely not want to tackle Catcher in the Rye  on their first book attempt, but would be more receptive to the reading process if provided books relating to their own backgrounds and situations.

“Ultimately, I would like to see Read4Life! expand to include ESL and family programs that enrich the lives of people across the nation,” Morissette said.  “We want this project to be a catalyst for positive change for our economy, communities and our children.”

Currently in her senior year, Morissette plans to attend graduate school and eventually earn a doctorate in business. She said she would also like to return to GGC to teach business and operate Read4Life!

Her goal is for Read4Life! to reach 50,000 of Georgia’s 1.3 million functionally illiterate adults in the first five years of the program’s implementation, and to continue honoring her mother while broadening literacy throughout the state and beyond. For additional information on Read4Life! contact Read4L@yahoo.com.

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