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Davidson: It all begins with literacy

Posted: September 27, 2012 - 3:58pm

Have you ever heard of some person being spoon fed? Well, most of us have because this is how we feed a baby, and we often spoon feed invalids who can no longer feed themselves. Of course, for adults, the extreme of this example eventually is through a feeding tube.

Did you know that a whole community can be spoon fed? This is to say, the people living and working there can be spoon fed economically. Today I want to use this example to talk with you about the importance of literacy. When you get right down to it, economic or financial success begins with literacy. Here is the real question: When a community is spoon fed, what happens when you remove the spoon? The answer is they suffer the loss of jobs and income.

This is what happened to Blytheville, Arkansas, back in 1992 when the federal government closed Eaker Air Force Base, which was a big part of the economic lifeline for this Northeast Arkansas community. A friend who once lived there told me that every two weeks the checks came and everyone was happy. As a result of the air base closing, over time this community lost about half of its commerce and also half of its population. I can remember a time along about 1970 when Blytheville and Jonesboro, neighboring communities, were about the same size. Now Jonesboro has a population of more than 68,000 and Blytheville has a population of a little more than 16,000. These are general statistics, but you get the point.

There were two main factors at work here. First, Jonesboro is the home of Arkansas State University, and the number of literate, educated graduates they turn out year after year enables this community to develop a wide and diverse economy. They did not have all their eggs in one basket, as did Blytheville. When a plant closed in Jonesboro, or a downturn in the economy came along, they did not suffer the same fate. This is why every community should strive for diversity and a wide range of business and industry employers that provide good jobs.

Here is the reason I am sharing this with you, because it may have a bearing on the future of your own community. In addition to the closing of the air base, there are a number of other factors involved. In doing some research I learned that the literacy rate in Mississippi County, where Blytheville is located, is 27 percent. In other words, one out of every four adults in this county is functionally illiterate. The simple truth is that you cannot have a diverse economy unless you have a labor pool of highly educated and literate workers to work in the jobs that follow. Please hear me loud and clear — it really does begin with literacy.

While it is certainly a long-term proposition, every community needs a Bookcase for Every Child project to focus on reading and literacy. Our goal is to reach children being reared in low-income families who have few, if any, books in the home for their children to read. We had our eighth annual Awards Ceremony back in April, and I want to share some comments from a prominent citizen who was there. Debbie says, “A young daughter of a family that I have known for many years was one of those receiving a bookcase and a starter set of books. Ruth, the mother, did not have a car and asked if I would take her to the ceremony.

“After the ceremony, on the way home, as Sarah went through the starter set books that came with the personalized oak bookcase, she had shouts of excitement and kissed two of the books as she recognized the titles. I have since learned that Ruth is now reading to Sarah on a regular basis. I know you don’t hear this often enough but you are making a difference.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Davidson is a public speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034. To begin a bookcase literacy project visit www.bookcaseforeverychild.com.)

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