The Silicon Valley Voice

Power To Your Voice

The Gift of Literacy

I have a friend who comes from Ethiopia, Hiwet. In her language, Amharic, her name means “life.” She works as a caregiver for adults with autism. She reads people well, is good with numbers, and speaks four languages fluently, including English.

Four years ago, you might have seen her in a store, picking up a box of noodles and not looking at the package, but at people around her. New to this country, she was listening for clues as to what was in her hand.

Hiwet could not read or write. 

Daily Challenges

For people in Hiwet’s position, days are defined by overcoming obstacles. For example, there are two bank tellers behind the counter and both are busy. Each has a written sign. Which teller is available? People manage by getting help in roundabout ways: a man may say he left his glasses at home. In a restaurant, a woman may ask to her companion to select a menu item for her.

Hiwet took paperwork home for a friend to fill it in. To write notes about clients, Hiwet would copy single words from other entries. She avoided answering the phone in case she had to write down a message.

A friend saw information about Read Santa Clara, the adult literacy program of the Santa Clara City Library, and helped her to join. Hiwet has learned new ways of doing things in a new country. Reading and writing English is a part of that, as difficult as it is.

But what about people born and raised here who struggle to read and write? About 16 percent of adults in Santa Clara County lack basic literacy skills.

Imagine you graduated high school but cannot read or write well or do math. Maybe a learning disability was not diagnosed. Or you had to leave school to earn money. Whatever the reason, you are now “functionally illiterate.”

Using an ATM or reading road signs, directions on medicine, and cooking instructions on packaged food: all these are part of daily life. When everyone around you can read and write, how do you get over the embarrassment and ask for help?

It might be up to a friend to offer help – without making you feel even more uncomfortable. After all, we are all “illiterate” in certain everyday things: how many of us can understand legalese, for instance?

Not every adult is ready to ask for help directly. Notice the tell-tale signs that words and numbers are difficult for someone.  Small kindnesses will go a long way: read a menu out loud as you make up your own mind what to order. When paperwork needs to be filled out, offer to do it together. Eventually, you might be the person they approach for help.

Last Word

Hiwet couldn’t finish schooling in her own country. When she joined Read Santa Clara, she hoped that one day she would be able to give her children the education she was denied. Thanks to the program, Hiwet has passed examinations required for a promotion at work. She has also given birth to a healthy baby boy. The day she confirmed her pregnancy, Hiwet bought her first book – a counting book for babies. “Now,” she said, “I will be able to read to him.”

If you would like to help or know someone who needs help with basic literacy skills, call Read Santa Clara at (408) 615-2956 or email


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