Give Your Word

It is a sad fact that 750 million adults worldwide cannot read or write a simple sentence. Imagine not being able to fill out a form at the hospital, vote in an election, take the right bus, or send a text message to a loved one. That’s the reality for one in ten people alive today. What’s more, it’s a reality that affects more than just the individual; it affects their families and generations to come. Children of illiterate parents are more likely to grow up to be illiterate and go on to have illiterate children themselves.

With your help, we can break this cycle. 

Meet the stars of our film

  • Brian
  • Nereida
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  • Mary
  • Wanda
  • Andre
  • James
  • Stephanie
  • David
  • Herman
  • Amina
  • CJ
  • Donna
  • Peter
  • Sarah


When most kids graduate high school, they ask their parents for something extravagant like a vacation or a big party. But there was just one thing Brian wanted: reading lessons. Unfortunately his father, a single parent who worked at a gas station, didn’t feel like he was able to afford them for his son. Brian knew he needed help with his reading and writing — he felt like he had been falling behind all throughout school. He didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t able to communicate as effectively as his peers, but he didn’t know where to turn.

Recently, a family friend walked into his dad’s gas station and recommended a local, free literacy program — Project Literacy of Bergen County. Brian jumped at the chance to improve his skills, and has been working with several different tutors ever since. He’s progressing quickly, and finding that one of his favorite new avenues of communication is the digital space. He’s learned how to text, joined social media, and was incredibly proud to send his first email to a group of his friends just a short while ago. He’s also learning to love books, and plans to continue his education in the years to come.


At 14, most students are just struggling to read their English homework, but Nereida was struggling to read the instructions on baby formula. A young mother, she dropped out of school to better care for her first daughter. Two other children followed soon after, and her plans of eventually going back to school faded away. She struggled to overcome drug addiction and was homeless for seven years, before finally finding help at a women’s shelter. There, she was referred to the Center for Literacy, a literacy program based out of her local library.

Today, that same library is Nereida’s happy place. She’s been enrolled in the program for the last six months, and has jumped from a 5th grade reading level to college level faster than her instructors can believe. She’s become a voracious reader, taking great pride in her library card and its ability to unlock the world around her. “Books can take you anywhere”, Nereida now says, and she hopes to one day enroll in the local community college and become a teacher so she can share her love of reading with a whole new generation.


Nobody likes getting bills in the mail, but for Mary, bills weren’t just annoying — they were scary. Up until three years ago, she couldn’t read or write at all. Every time the mailman came, he brought a fresh batch of fear and anxiety. Her husband had been managing all of their finances — and when he passed away suddenly, Mary realized he hadn’t been doing that great of a job at it. She almost lost her house, her savings, and then, even her health. Her doctor prescribed her some medicine on a routine visit, but she couldn’t understand the instructions describing how to take it. She took too much, and ended up in the hospital.

This was a wake-up call. Mary finally decided to let go of her embarrassment at not knowing how to read or write, and do something about it. She found a fantastic tutor, Bobbie, and has been working closely with her on a regular basis at Literacy Action Atlanta. Now she can read, write, tell time, and balance her budget. But most importantly for Mary, she’s blossomed into a strong, independent woman. She’s able to go wherever she wants, interact with whoever she meets, and experience all that life has to offer. She relies on nobody but herself, and relishes the independence she has gained through her newfound literacy.


Have you ever heard the story of Pom-Pom, and how he was braver than anyone else in the land? You probably haven’t, because it’s a story that exists only in Wanda’s head.

Her children used to ask her to read them books at bedtime, but she wasn’t able to. So she would pick a book at random, and then make up a story to accompany the pictures.

It worked like a charm, until the kids started learning to read themselves. Then they noticed that the words didn’t match up, and Wanda was forced to admit to them that she didn’t know how to read or write.

The shame she felt brought her back to her days in high school, when the other kids would make fun of her for not progressing as quickly as everyone else. The large classrooms scared her, and the loud and boisterous students even more so.

Recently, Wanda decided she didn’t want to live in fear anymore. She was inspired by her children to go back to school, and has been working steadily with her tutor at Adults Can Learn to Read, a partner of the Philadelphia Office of Adult Education, for four months now.

Her confidence has grown exponentially, and it’s the little things that make her the happiest — being able to read the ingredients of a recipe, send an email, or understand the instructions on a medication bottle.

Her world has opened up like a book, and she loves going on an adventure with every new page she turns.


Any grandparent knows that when your grandchild asks you for something, you’ll do everything in your power to grant their wish. Andre’s granddaughter asked him to read her a bedtime story. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do it.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Andre was actually pretty shy growing up. He transferred to a new school at a young age, a school with bigger and louder classrooms, and soon fell behind. He became the class clown to hide the fact that he couldn’t read or write as well as his peers, and kept the charade up for most of his adult life.

Andre would ask his friends and family to read his bills, memorize the routes he had to drive because he couldn’t understand street signs, and leave the room if any kind of out-loud reading was taking place.

But then his granddaughter wanted her "Pop-Pop" to read her a book, and he realized he couldn't hide any longer. He enrolled with Adults Can Learn to Read, a partner of the Philadelphia Office of Adult Education, where he found a wonderful tutor, Joanne, who is not only helping him with his literacy – she’s helping to change his life.

So far, Andre's proudest moment was finally being able to read that book to his granddaughter, and he plans to read her many more over the years to come.


The most frustrating thing for James about not being able to read or write was being unable to fully express himself. A poet at heart, he had so much to say and share with the world, but no outlet with which to do it. While in school, James was shy, mainly due to his fear of being made fun of if he read something out loud incorrectly. He left at the age of 16 and soon fell in with a bad crowd, struggling with drug addiction and eventually spiralling into homelessness. He felt he had reached rock bottom, until a chance phone call with his mother inspired him to get his life back on track.

He’s been sober for over a year now, and working hard to get his high school equivalency diploma. He’s gone from an 8th grade reading level to a 12th grade level in record time, and takes great pride in writing poetry that documents his struggles and triumphs.


“If I have a dream, I dream it deep like an ocean, high like the sky.” These are the words that Stephanie has lived by since she was a child in Malaysia. Growing up in a poor family, she was taken out of school at the age of nine so she could help her family pay the bills. She became a babysitter in the houses of well-to-do families, and was inspired by their education and knowledge to better her own life. One day, she thought, I’ll make a life just like theirs.

Stephanie came to America at the age of 24, unable to read or write in either Malay or English. The turning point came three years ago, when her daughter was about to leave for college. “I’m going to be busy studying,” her daughter said, “so if you don’t learn how to text with me, we’re not going to be able to talk.” Stephanie took that as a challenge, and immediately enrolled in a local literacy program. Now, she and her daughter text several times a day — jokes, messages of love, motherly advice, and everything in between. Stephanie is more confident and excited about everything in her life — from discovering new dishes when she reads the menus at local restaurants, to finally fulfilling a lifelong goal of traveling to Europe. She continues to dream big, and every word she reads and writes helps her along her journey.


The death of a loved one is never easy, but for David, it was especially hard. After his mother passed away two years ago, David was embarrassed that he had to rely on others to fill out the paperwork to put her affairs in order. She had been a brilliant woman, who went back to school at age 50 and eventually completed her doctorate in theology. David knew he had to make some changes in his own life to honor her memory, so he decided to enroll in a local literacy program to learn how to read and write.

The first program he tried put him in a large class, which brought back painful memories of getting lost in the shuffle at a crowded public school. But he eventually found a one-on-one tutor, Sandy, and has been working with her at Strong City Baltimore at a fantastic, steady pace. He’s been writing his own gospel music, traveling with his choir, and hopes to soon start his own janitorial business. He’s joined several social media sites, and loves communicating with his church group online.

David is also reveling in the independence his newfound literacy grants him. He’s no longer afraid of taking public transportation, and loves that he can find his way around on the bus or on the train. Learning to read and write has opened so many doors for him — both literally and spiritually.


Five years ago, Herman couldn’t read or write at all. He was constantly angry, lashing out every time he was forced into a situation that required literacy skills. It was something that happened a lot — reading the mail; figuring out the instructions on medication bottles; even just driving around, trying to read street signs. He’d been living this way for almost 35 years, ever since he dropped out of school early because he had a hard time paying attention in his classes. Finally, Herman decided that he’d had enough. Life was too short to spend it angry.

He enrolled in a local literacy program, Literacy Volunteers of Waterbury Connecticut, and describes finally learning how to read and write as like “being able to see the world for the first time”. Now that he has two daughters, Herman has even more reason to keep up with his studies. He checks out several books a week from his local library to read with them, going through the words with his tutor first so he can get them right. And nothing makes him prouder than seeing his girls discover the joy of reading, all on their own. He’s joined Facebook, uses Google, and spends his free time reading the news and chatting with friends online. Life is good, and thanks to his newfound literacy, it’s only going to get better.


Imagine being able to speak three languages, but not knowing how to read or write in any of them. That was the reality for Amina, who was born in Morocco and emigrated to the UK at a young age. She comes from a traditional family, who never placed value on sending girls to school. She speaks English, French and Berber – but up until 6 months ago, had never written her name in any of them.

Amina now works as a housekeeper in a hotel, but aspires to move into a more senior role. For the most part, her colleagues are very supportive – her supervisor draws her pictures instead of writing out instructions for the things she’s supposed to do, and she studies the English guests closely to pick up words and phrases. However, she was recently in a situation with a co-worker where there was a misunderstanding about her duties, and she feels that he took advantage of her inability to read. Since then, Amina’s become determined to learn to read and write. She found a local literacy program, Read Easy, and has been working tirelessly with her tutor. She’s learned the entire alphabet, and takes great pride in the fact that she can now write her entire name for the first time in her life.


Every time CJ filled out a job application, he was nervous. Not just about whether or not he would get hired - he was worried whether he had even filled out the application itself correctly. Job seeker programs would send him to places that required him to fill out forms on a computer, so he would peck at the keyboard hesitantly, hoping he was providing the right information in the right places. He knew that the fact he wasn't able to read and write was keeping him from getting a job, but he didn’t know what to do about it.

CJ struggled with literacy from a young age, falling behind early in school and never quite catching back up. He had a loyal network of friends and family who would help him cope – his mates would tell him what movies were playing at what times when they went out, and his mum and sister would help him order off the menu when they went to a restaurant. CJ was afraid his constant dependence would one day wear thin, and felt like his inability to read and write was becoming a burden not just to himself – but to the people he loved.

So CJ decided to make a change. He enrolled in a local literacy program, Read Easy, and has been working with several tutors regularly. He’s progressed by leaps and bounds, and now takes great pride in being able to read the newspaper every day. He still relies on his mum and sister for help, but now they encourage him with his lessons, pushing him to work even harder. He recently found a job, and is starting to explore the opportunities his newfound literacy can provide.


Preparing dinner for your kids can be tough, but for Donna, it was actually dangerous. Her eldest has a peanut allergy, and because Donna didn’t know how to read, she could never be sure if dinner would end with dessert – or with a trip to the hospital. Her problems didn’t end in the kitchen; they affected every facet of her interactions with her children. Helping them with their schoolwork, understanding notes sent home by their teachers - even taking them to see the doctor.

Donna’s difficulty with reading began when she herself was a child. She knew she was falling behind in class, but didn’t know who to talk to about catching up. She found that she did better with one-on-one learning, but the teachers able to give her that kind of attention were few and far between. So instead she just became more withdrawn and more silent, fading into the background and hoping nobody would discover her secret.

It was her children’s belief in her that finally spurred Donna to make a change. With their encouragement, she decided to enlist in a local literacy program called Read Easy. Now, she’s far more confident about everything in her life – from helping her kids with their homework to finally getting her driving license so she can take them to school.


For the last 40 years, whenever Peter would go to a restaurant, he would always order steak and chips. Not because it was his favorite meal, but because he couldn’t read the menu. If the staff told him they didn’t have it, he would ask what they recommended and just eat that. It was one of the many ways he coped without being able to read or write.

Peter has struggled with illiteracy ever since he was a child. Whenever he was called on in class to read, he would kick up a fuss and do his best to get sent out of the room to avoid embarrassment. His first job was at age 16 as a baker’s apprentice, where he would hide his difficulty writing by watching the head baker to memorize recipes. After that he worked as a lorry driver, memorizing his route by recognizing various landmarks.

The turning point for Peter was last year, when his brother asked him to read over his vows before his wedding. Peter tried, but couldn’t do it, and had to pretend that he had read the words. It was at that moment that he knew he had to make a change. He enrolled in a local literacy program, Read Easy, and has been making fantastic progress. His greatest desire is to now read the classics, and he’s currently happily making his way through “A Christmas Carol.”


Sarah first realized she had a problem with reading when she was in primary school. It was the start of a new year, and all of the students’ names were written out on pieces of paper, waiting on their assigned desks. She wandered through the room and finally sat down. The teacher walked over, looking at her quizzically. Sarah was sitting at a desk marked “Tilly.”

She was soon diagnosed with dyslexia, but found little support within the school system. It made her feel ashamed and embarrassed, and she sunk further into herself. She managed to slip through the cracks, finding various ways to cope with her dyslexia on her own.

The final straw only came many years later, when her twin daughters began their own schooling. They were desperate for their mum to read them stories and help them with their homework, and Sarah was heartbroken that she couldn’t. But instead of giving into despair, she found a local literacy program called Read Easy and started taking classes. Working with a special tutor who knew how to help people like her, she’s been progressing at an astonishing pace. Sarah now reads to her daughters as much as possible, encouraging their love of reading even as they do the same for her.

Follow their stories as they share their literacy journeys with us.

Give your word and help de-stigmatize adult illiteracy. 
Give your word and support adults learning to read and write.
Give your word and celebrate the brave individuals who are taking steps to improve their lives and the lives of their children. 

Give your word to help them and others like them.

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