Volunteers come together to offer reading, math tutoring for adults through Trident Literacy Association
Photo by Wade Spees/staff
Fetima Hill keeps an attentive eye on Kristina Watson’s long-division work for the GED at the New First Missionary Baptist Church on Edisto Island.
EDISTO ISLAND – Family and friends clustered around tables in a room at the back of the New First Missionary Baptist Church.
Fifteen percent of South Carolina residents have below-basic literacy skills. This means they can’t read a newspaper story, fill out a job application or follow the directions on a medicine label.
The average cost to taxpayers is $292,000 over the working life of each high school dropout, in terms of lost earnings and lower taxes paid, and higher spending for social costs such as incarceration, health care and welfare.
In Charleston, 12.9 percent of the county’s incoming freshmen this fall read on a fourth-grade level or worse.
— Trident Literacy Association and Charleston County School District
Some of these rural island residents never finished high school, while others have graduate degrees. Those who lack a high school education have come to work on their GED, and the community is ready to help.
This is the Trident Literacy Association’s newest outreach site, and it’s unique in that volunteers suggested it, organized it and run it. It has been only about a month since they started meeting, but organizers have been overwhelmed by the number of tutors and adult students who have gotten involved.
It would take at least an hour to get to any of the association’s nearest locations, but this one is close enough for some to walk the two-lane, oak-lined roads to get here.
The new site is giving them access they otherwise would not have had, and it’s the start of what many hope to be a new future.
“I want to have a good life for them,” said Kristina Watson, a 22-year-old student, of her two children. “That’s the most important thing.”
Filling a need
Eileen Chepenik, executive director of the Trident Literacy Association, said the Edisto Island program wouldn’t be happening without the volunteers. The association doesn’t have the money to staff new places, but it has been borrowing its employees to test Edisto adult students and give them individualized learning plans.
“When volunteers come to us and say ‘We want to help,’ we’re going to make it happen,” she said.
The association has sites downtown, North Charleston, Moncks Corner, Summerville and Goose Creek, but Chepenik rattled off a list of areas throughout the Lowcountry where she would like to open programs — West Ashley, Johns Island, Mount Pleasant and McClellanville.
Statistics show that an estimated 36,000 tricounty adults don’t have a high school diploma or GED, and about 250 of them reside within five miles of Edisto Island.
Chepenik would like to see the new site grow beyond its once-a-week, three-hour session.
“If we improve literacy, the whole family and the whole community benefits,” she said.
Starting from scratch
Sue Fisher retired to Edisto Island a few years ago after an out-of-state career as a high school teacher and administrator. She became friends with another retired teacher and administrator, Mary Adelana, while trying to help some of the island’s impoverished families.
The issue of literacy came up when Fisher talked with another friend, Bob King, a salesman who is approaching retirement. King had taken a training course from the association on tutoring adult students, and they decided to try to have that kind of program on Edisto.
The three of them and Fisher’s husband went through the association’s training this year and approached Chepenik with their idea.
From there, they talked to Adelana’s pastor about using the church as a meeting place, and the island’s 15 pastors preached about the new GED classes.
They ended up with 28 volunteers, and they have had more than 15 adults express interest or show up to work on their GED.
“To have students who are so motivated and are coming in having done 10 or 12 hours of homework, it kind of takes your breath away,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of energy in that room.”
Building a better life
Janet Brown, 40, is one of the island’s residents who started coming to the Thursday night GED-prep sessions. Brown has to think a minute before she will consent to a 10-minute interview with The Post and Courier because she doesn’t want to waste a minute of the three-hour session with her tutor, Susanne Nash.
Brown dropped out of Baptist Hill High as a freshman. She moved away and came back three years ago, and that’s when she said she realized she needed more education. Her bills remained the same, but the beach town’s seasonal work made it difficult to survive.
She already had been spending $80 per week in gas to drive to North Charleston to earn a WorkKeys certificate from Trident Literacy Association. She planned to start her GED there too, but those plans changed — and got easier — with the new Edisto site.
“There’s not a lot happening for adults or for kids here,” she said. “This is a plus.”
For Brown, it’s become a family affair. She has brought her nephew, son and two of her sisters to the church to begin working on their GED. Most people know the other students or tutors in the room; they are neighbors, siblings, relatives, church members and friends.
Brown and Nash reviewed Brown’s homework, and Brown smiled as she checked off her correct answers that Nash read aloud.
When they found an error, they stopped to figure out what Brown did wrong.
“I don’t know what you did there,” Nash told Brown after looking at one problem for a couple of minutes.
“I don’t either,” Brown said, and the pair laughed.
When she finishes with her GED, Brown plans to enroll at Trident Technical College and learn more about a topic she loves — cooking.
One day, she wants to open a restaurant.
Reach Diette Courrégé at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.