Learn to read here.
These four simple words hang in giant letters across a 20-foot-by-20-foot banner on the side of the New Orleans Main Library branch downtown.
On Jan. 27 and 28, the hope is that illiterate adults will come to the library and enroll in a free literacy program offered by the YMCA of Greater New Orleans.
Shannan Cvitanovic, director of YMCA Educational Services, says that of the three locations around the city where adult education is offered, the Main Library, which serves the lowest-level readers — those who need to start with the ABCs — sees the greatest demand by far. The YMCA is the only organization in the city that caters to this demographic.
“We offer programs for all levels of readers, but our beginner program always has the greatest waiting list,” she said. New student enrollment for nonreaders is offered just twice a year.
“There are way too many adults in this city that can’t even fill out a job application or read to their kids at night,” Cvitanovic said of the literacy crisis in New Orleans. Recent projections state that an estimated 40 percent of people age 16 and older read below a fifth-grade level.
Through the program, students are offered an hour-and-a-half of free instruction four days a week.
“Within a few months, these people will be reading short sentences,” she said. “And we’ll just continue from there. They can stay with us and keep learning as long as they want.”
Decades ago, the YMCA used volunteers as instructors, but Cvitanovic said it eventually became clear that the most successful, efficient way to get people reading quickly was to use qualified teachers. “Plus, currently we can only offer classes during the day, which is hard for volunteers, as well as for those that are employed, but want to get help.”
The program currently serves about 175 people a year, a number far below what it could, but Cvitanovic says a lack of funding and locations limits the reach.
When the YMCA of Greater New Orleans began, back in 1852, the city’s needs were a bit different.
“One of our first endeavors was helping people dealing with the yellow fever outbreak,” Cvitanovic said. “Since day one, we’ve never wavered in our commitment to this community and to filling whatever critical need exists.”
Since 1977, adult literacy has been one of those critical needs the organization has been addressing.
At East New Orleans Regional Library, the YMCA works with higher-level students — those interested in passing a high school equivalency exam or a specific test for a job.
“For some people it may just be that they’ve been out of school for a long time and they have now come to a point where they have to pass a writing or math test in order to advance in their career,” Cvitanovic said. “We can help them do that.”
At Trinity Christian Community Center in Hollygrove, the YMCA has partnered with the city of New Orleans’ Best Babies Zone initiative, dedicated to reducing infant mortality rates and racial disparity in birth outcomes.
“We had one young woman referred to us by her child’s pediatrician,” Cvitanovic said. “The baby was not doing well; it was not gaining weight. Eventually the pediatrician figured out it was because the poor mother couldn’t read the instructions on the formula so she wasn’t feeding her child properly.”
Cvitanovic says that one of the best ways citizens can support the work being done to increase literacy rates in New Orleans is to spread the word about the programs.
“Marketing to a population who doesn’t read can be hard,” she said, “so we really depend a lot on word of mouth. I want people to know that it doesn’t matter where you live or what level you’re at, if you contact us, we can help or refer you to someone else who can.”
For more information on the YMCA Adult Literacy Program, call (504) 596-3842.