Viewpoints: Spread the joy of reading, and help us all, by tutoring

One out of every four adults around the world can’t read a newspaper. Or share a bedtime story with a child. Or follow the instructions on a bottle of medicine.

Nearly a half-century after International Literacy Day was organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on Sept. 8, 1966, there are still 775 million adults on this planet who lack minimum literacy skills, according to the World Literacy Foundation.

Among them are an estimated 36 million adults in the United States who can’t read beyond the fourth-grade level. More than 4.5 million of them are Californians.

According to ProLiteracy, low literacy costs this country more than $225 billion each year in workforce nonproductivity and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.

Low adult literacy contributes to a wide range of social ills. The No. 1 determiner of a kid’s success is the literacy of his or her parents. A high percentage of prison inmates and those living in poverty test at the lowest literacy levels.

Of all the life skills acquired, reading might be the one most taken for granted. By those who can read, anyway.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proclaimed September “Adult Literacy Awareness Month” in honor of the 30th anniversary of California Library Literacy Services, a program of the California State Library.

Public libraries are hosting events this month to address the very serious issue of low adult literacy as part of a statewide awareness campaign called “Together, California Reads.” It’s an effort to spotlight inspirational adult learners and the trained volunteer tutors who change lives forever by sharing the gift of reading through free, one-on-one and group sessions at more than 500 local public libraries.

Roughly 10,000 volunteer tutors teach adult learners to read and write at public libraries all over California. The supply of tutors isn’t enough to meet demand. Nearly 4,000 eager-to-learn California adults are wait-listed statewide, all wanting to read but stymied by a lack of volunteer tutors.

Magic happens when learners and tutors come together. There’s no other way to describe it. Learners’ lives are fundamentally and irrevocably changed by their increased literacy and the newfound realization of their potential as family leaders, workers and community members.

What’s also magical is how the lives of tutors change. Listen to Judi Cunha, a volunteer tutor from San Andreas:

“We don’t have a clue how graced we are to have some of the skills we have until we see people who don’t have those same skills. … To be able to share a skill with somebody. To be able to help a person get impassioned about their own life. There’s just nothing like it. There’s nothing like it in the world.”

Judi and other volunteer tutors share their experiences at

Better yet, create your own magic. Become a volunteer. It’s simple. Halfway through editing this piece, I stopped and called the public library in Sacramento where I live. Within a few minutes I was signed up for my initial training.

See firsthand how California’s public libraries change lives by changing someone’s life yourself. Give the gift of reading. And see how much you get back in return.