Partnering with Toyota to create the Toyota Family Literacy Program, the National Center for Literacy has helped more than one million families.
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If you're reading this article, you already possess a reading comprehension that is out of reach for many in America. More than 20 years ago, Sharon Darling set out to tackle this complex issue, launching The National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) to work with families to combat low literacy, a hidden stigma that is often invisible in our high-tech, digital age.
Poverty, struggles over education and embarrassment are common threads shared by families who seek help from NCFL’s programs. The problem is nationwide, affecting both immigrant and native-born Americans in rural and urban populations.
Through her work, Darling discovered that literacy skill is often an intergenerational problem, affecting parents and their children. The model for NCFL began in Appalachia, an area where Darling saw firsthand how great the need was.
“Seventy percent of the parents in those communities had never graduated high school, and about the same percentage of their children never made it out either," Darling says. "They were behind before they arrived. They couldn’t catch up."
After seeing the devastating effects on families, she realized that if she could teach parents literacy skills, she could also empower parents to teach their children how to read too. Not only does this create a positive cycle of learning, it helps parents participate more actively in their child's education.
Consider the Maldonados. When they moved to the United States, the Maldonados lived in a garage and had no bed – only a mattress on which to sleep. Baby Jose slept on that mattress with his parents. But this spring, thanks in part to Darling and NCFL, he will graduate from film school at Cal State Long Beach and can speak three languages.
His mother, who used to stand guard outside the gate of his elementary school – too afraid to leave him and too intimidated to enter the building – now speaks English, has a job and is pursuing her dream of a high school diploma.
Darling also realized that she'd able to do more by teaming up with a partner. More than 20 years ago, she and Toyota together began creating family literacy sites in communities across the country, so parents can go to places that look just like their child's school to take weekly or daily classes to develop their literacy and parenting skills. Immigrant parents also receive help with their English skills. This provides support to learn and also encourages an active role in the school’s community.
With this partnership, Toyota provides not only funding, but also the management skills and expertise that have helped make NCFL a long term success. For instance, at the start of their relationship, Toyota loaned executives to NCFL for a year to help implement the same highly efficient management processes that are used in Toyota's divisions worldwide.
“The questions that [Toyota] asked were not questions that I would have thought of,” Darling says of this learning process. “That has yielded great results.”
Over the last twenty years, $36 million dollars of funding from Toyota has allowed the program to expand to 50 cities and touch more than one million families. The program was also supported at the highest levels at Toyota: From the beginning, then-Chairman Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda embraced the program, which inspired him to visit families and gain an understanding of their problems.
Darling also gives credit for the program's success to the families themselves for having the courage to take their literacy into their own hands. “I’m most proud that they took advantage of the opportunity. They’ve really grown themselves.”
Darling describes how one particular Louisville woman and her family became empowered through NCFL. A mother with six children and an abusive husband, she struggled her entire life with literacy. “She ended up getting her GED. Her kids would run to the mailbox on the first of the month for the welfare check. One month, the check didn’t come, and she told her kids, ‘You’re not ever going to see another welfare check in that mailbox again.’ She’s now gone on to be a teacher. You can imagine the message that sends to her children.”
Learn more about how Toyota teamed up with NCFL here and how you can support the family literacy here.
Photos via NCFL