It’s early, and the Trident Literacy center on Meeting Street has just opened.

The single large room is divided down the middle. On one side, computers hum, and a pregnant young woman lays a hand on her belly as she works, teaching herself skills she needs for advancement. On the other side of the partition, at a collection of donated tables, sit four students — the number will rise significantly before 11 a.m. — writing studiously, deliberating over each word.

Generally middle-aged or older, they are here because they have less than eighth-grade educations; most are at the lowest literacy level, able to do little more than sign their own names. Some have to be given oral placement exams because they can’t complete sentences with words like “cat” and “small.” One of these is Annie Green, now 69, who only got to the “second or third” grade before dropping out. “My kids are grown now, so I want to be able to write my own letters, read my own letters,” she says, explaining what brought her to the center.

“I wish I knew about this a long time ago,” she sighs. She knows her own limitations have determined, in part, her children’s success. “I had to raise all my kids myself, me and God, and I want to help my grandchildren and great-grandchildren do better.”

According to Eileen Chepenik — executive director of the nonprofit Trident Literacy Association, which runs the Meeting Street center as well as several other permanent and temporary locations — about half of all tri-county residents — 48 percent of adults between 19 and 25, and 44 percent of those above 25 — are functionally illiterate. They fall below the level required for most entry-level jobs, are at risk physically because they can’t read medicine labels or follow written instructions, can’t drive because of the written test required to get a license, and don’t know how to fill out insurance, health care, and social service forms vital to their families’ well-being.

“In other words,” Chepenik says, “do they need an adult education program in the area? Yeah.”

In the corner of the center, eating lunch with her grandson Tyrell between class modules, Betty Chancy is studying for the GED. She’s at least as excited about her newfound skills as Green is, but she’s younger, still out in the working world fighting with her setback, and there’s more bitterness in her explanation of how she ended up here.

“I grew up in James Island,” she says, “and went to James Island High.” She worked hard and enjoyed school, she says, but in 1976, she and her mother moved to downtown Charleston, where she attended Burke for only one month before dropping out. “The type of structure I grew up with wasn’t there,” she says of the school that even now, 30 years later, has been labeled “unsatisfactory” so many years in a row that the South Carolina Department of Education considered taking over its operation. “I grew up to respect my teachers, raise my hand, not just talk out, blurt out,” she says, and in that sense, Burke wasn’t like the other schools she’d attended. It didn’t seem to offer her any hope of furthering herself, so she left.

But Chancy’s remarks don’t just apply to Burke; they bring up the much thornier question of how it is that Charleston area students are able to get to high school, much less graduate, without knowing how to read. The problem, according to Gail Hildrich, site manager of the Meeting Street center and better known among the students there as “Miss Gail,” is “a continual chain … if you’re looking at parents who aren’t educated, the kids aren’t going to get the education.”

That’s the impetus behind Trident United Way’s (TUW’s) new early literacy initiatives, a continuum of programs that bring parents and children together over books.

Just getting new parents to hold a book with the child is an improvement, according to Bonnie Bella, TUW’s vice president of Children and Youth Services, because 60 percent of kindergartners in neighborhoods where children do poorly in school have never owned a single book.

Since most of a child’s brain development occurs by age three — before he or she comes into contact with the school system at all — children who are not exposed to books enter kindergarten already at a disadvantage they may never overcome. This is particularly a problem given that 88 percent of poor readers in first grade are still poor readers in fourth grade, and children who are still below the average reading level by the fourth grade are never likely to catch up, according to the International Reading Association.

“It’s such a fundamental skill that we take it for granted,” Bella says. “But it’s not genetic. Somebody has to teach you how to read.”

That’s why TUW has teamed up with MUSC Children’s Care. The hospital is the first point of contact, and the pediatrician is in an established position of trust, formed when parents have just had their babies and are “most amenable to and interested in” help and advice.

Bella thinks of TUW’s continuum of services as a prevention program, working to reduce drop-outs, poverty, and the other costs of illiteracy at their earliest germination points. And others are getting involved in this type of prevention as well, thanks to the PAIRS (Parents and Adults Inspiring Reading Success) program, which is administered by the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee to bring together community groups, provide them with information and materials, and create what program director Dana Yow calls “a synergistic impact when these individuals and groups work together.”

The Pink House is one of Yow’s success stories. Its founder, Pastor Christian King, was trying to “share the lessons of the Bible” with her Sunday-school students when she found that they couldn’t read the text. She calls that her baptism. King bought a house in North Charleston, scraped together a minimal budget, and spent three years finding funding and support for her new program.

“This was before faith-based initiatives, before after-school programs,” she says, so she had to do something, and quickly, because “all of my kids start off at a disadvantage. As they enter kindergarten, they’re already 32 million words behind their middle-class counterparts, who live in a print-rich environment.”

Despite its magnitude, the problem remains hidden, King argues, because readers just “assume it’s something everyone else does.”

Both Bella and Chepenik agree that this issue affects those who are already literate in ways they may not imagine. Chepenik roots around in a pile of papers on her desk and pulls out a clipped newspaper article, a story about a dishwasher who put caustic chemicals on an unsuspecting couple’s martini glasses. Unable to read the label, he thought the box contained sugar.

She also relates a story about a company that recently came to her for help; management was planning to administer a safety exam when they found that 30 employees were unable to even read it. These employees make and use toxic chemicals every day, and they are not literate enough to understand the precautions necessary for their own safety — and ours.

According to Chepenik, the chemical company liaison told her, “That’s why we have pictures.”

“It’s everyone’s problem, and it’s everyone’s responsibility,” says Chepenik. “Fifty percent of workers don’t have the literacy skills to do basic jobs.” An illiterate work force does not attract companies to the Lowcountry, and if they do set up shop here, they have trouble finding eligible employees. Businesses suffer; the city and state lose revenue.

Also, according to the Ohio Literacy Resource Center, “limited literacy skills cost business and taxpayers $20 billion in lost wages, profits, and productivity annually,” and 33 percent of all welfare recipients are functionally illiterate.

Perhaps the greatest cost to the community is crime: 75 percent of the nation’s inmates do not have a high school diploma, almost invariably because of poor literacy skills.

This issue caught the attention of the Charleston County Detention Center and Trident Literacy, who are collaborating on an adult education and GED-readiness program. Avram Kronsberg, GED program manager at the downtown Trident Literacy site, goes to a detention center once a week to teach classes, and he says the program is having positive results. “Some are motivated to get out of their cells,” he says with a shrug, “and some are motivated to take the GED … while they’re up there, they work. I make sure of that.

“There are those who didn’t think they had a chance who found out they could [make a living],” he says. “It makes them feel they have options.” He explains that the program presents some added difficulties because the detention center is so tightly controlled, but they are seeing enough success to expand the program. “Some things don’t come overnight,” he says.

That seems to be the students’ outlook, too. Green rolls her eyes heavenward and says, “Oh, yes, I’m gonna try,” when asked if she’s planning to get her GED eventually. She says a friend of hers, also 69, recently graduated. “Sixty-nine years old, she graduated from high school,” she repeats, and shakes her head emphatically. “It’s no shame.”

Want to get involved?
Gail Hildrich, of the Trident Literacy Association, says, “The only skill you need is the desire to help.”

To volunteer, or to find out more, contact:

Trident Literacy Association
(843) 747-2223

Trident United Way
(843) 740-9000 or 211


Pink House
(843) 556-3486