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AmeriCorps volunteers help Laclede Literacy Council support workforce literacy

A notebook and pencil
David Schwarzenberg
A notebook and pencil

Laclede Literacy Council, member of AmeriCorps, provides free services in almost any type of literacy.

AmeriCorps volunteers are helping nonprofit organizations and schools across the Ozarks in a variety of ways – from serving as college advisors to doing conservation work at state parks.

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

“The wonderful thing about AmeriCorps is we were designed to make sure the local community really leads the charge," said Smith. "And so, if you're in Springfield, Missouri the work that AmeriCorps members are doing might be very different from Springfield, Illinois to Springfield, Massachusetts.”

One organization served by AmeriCorps is the Laclede Literacy Council in Lebanon, Missouri, which has been serving the rural area for 33 years. The nonprofit offers free services ranging from basic literacy to English as a Second Language to preparing for the HiSET or GED exams.

The council’s executive director Carol Barsby said the number of people without a high school diploma equivalency has dropped from 19 to 16.7 percent in the last seven years. AmeriCorps volunteers are part of the effort to lower that rate.

AmeriCorps, funded through taxpayer dollars and donations, uses volunteers who can receive living stipends, educational grants, federal student loan forbearance and, in some cases, even health insurance. Volunteers can stay in their community or move to a new city.

Barsby said they've been able to have a consistent schedule of volunteers because of the AmeriCorps program. And they have placed three AmeriCorps members in a Lebanon elementary school to help with reading deficiencies.

John Sode is a member of the AmeriCorps Vista program. He has been with the Literacy Council for five months. Some of his clients are blue collar workers preparing for required work exams.

“As we become a more technical society, factory jobs are requiring more training on machinery and that’s one of the things my students are telling me. ‘we need to be able to pass the safety test, the certification test," said Sode.

According to Data USA, 26 percent of workers in Laclede County are in manufacturing. Although some of these jobs don’t require a high school diploma, Barsby said they require literacy skills – 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 are harder as you go up the ladder," she said.

Barsby said literacy isn’t just reading. She explains, “there are so many kinds of literacy now that we address. We address financial literacy, math, digital literacy, computers, English as a second language as a literacy component, job skills training is a literacy component.”

And for most clients, said Barsby, passing these exams isn’t a matter of actual literacy skills, but rather self-confidence issues.

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

Every client receives free one on one tutoring for whatever they need and however long they need.

Applying for a job in modern day requires computer literacy. To obtain a specific certification or license, a worker must take classes and/or an exam. Careers that used to be just learning on the job 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 falls behind.

Meghan McKinney is an undergraduate journalism student at Missouri State University. She works as a news reporter and announcer for KSMU. Her passions, other than journalism, are psychology, music, sign languages and dancing. She also runs a local music page on Facebook called "SGF Playlist."