AmeriCorps volunteers help Laclede Literacy Council support workforce literacy

AmeriCorps volunteers help out nonprofits and schools in the Ozarks in a variety of ways—from working as college counselors to conservation work in state parks.

AmeriCorps has been in existence for nearly 50 years. Michael Smith, executive director of AmeriCorps, told KSMU that the federal program places volunteers across the United States to meet a variety of needs.

“The wonderful thing about AmeriCorps is that we were created to make sure the local community really takes the lead,” Smith said. “So if you’re in Springfield, Missouri, the work of AmeriCorps members can be very different from Springfield, Illinois to Springfield, Massachusetts.”

One organization served by AmeriCorps is the Laclede Literacy Council in Lebanon, Missouri, which has served rural communities for 33 years. The non-profit organization offers free services ranging from basic knowledge of English as a second language to preparation for the HiSET or GED exams.

Council Executive Director Carol Barsby said the number of people without a high school diploma has fallen from 19 to 16.7 per cent over the past seven years. AmeriCorps volunteers are part of the effort to bring that rate down.

AmeriCorps, funded by taxpayers’ money and donations, uses volunteers who can receive living grants, educational grants, federal student loan forgiveness, and in some cases even health insurance. Volunteers can stay in their community or move to a new city.

Barsby said the AmeriCorps program has allowed them to have a consistent volunteer schedule. And they placed three AmeriCorps members in a Lebanese elementary school to help with dyslexia.

John Sode is a member of the AmeriCorps Vista program. He’s been with the Literacy Council for five months. Some of his clients are workers preparing for the required labor exams.

“As we’re becoming an increasingly technical society, factory jobs require more training on machines, and that’s one of the things my students tell me. “We have to be able to pass the security test, the certification test,” Sode said.

According to Data USA, 26 percent of workers in Laclede County are in manufacturing. Though some of these jobs don’t require a high school diploma, Barsby says literacy is required — even if the job duties don’t require reading or writing.

“To get hired, you have to pass a literacy test. And to get promoted, you have to pass directly correlated tests that get harder as you climb the ladder,” she said.

Barsby said literacy isn’t just about reading. She explains: “There are now so many types of literacy that we address. We deal with financial literacy, math, digital literacy, computers, English as a second language as a literacy component, professional skills training as a literacy component.”

And for most clients, Barsby says, passing these exams isn’t a question of actual literacy, but rather a question of confidence.

“It’s not that they can’t or can’t, they just don’t think they can,” Barsby said. “So it’s just a little bit of encouragement and a little proof that they can do it.”

Each client gets free one-on-one tuition for what they need and for how long it takes.

Applying for a job in this day and age requires computer skills. To obtain a specific certification or license, an employee must complete courses and/or an exam. Careers that used to be just work-based learning have more types of literacy requirements, creating barriers for some people.

And the Laclede Literacy Council, with the help of AmeriCorps volunteers, is working to make sure no one is left behind.

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