PORTHENRY-More than 10 percent of North Country residents can't read well enough to complete daily tasks.
"It's a much bigger problem than most people realize," said Maria Burke, new director of the Literacy Volunteers of Essex and Franklin Counties. "A lot of people can't support their families, help their children with homework or have other struggles because they don't have the necessary literacy skills."
A report by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education showed 12 percent of Essex County residents and 15 percent of Franklin County residents lack basic reading skills, Burke said.
Burke, a Crown Point native now living in Ticonderoga, has replaced Chuck Gibson as head of the Port Henry-based literacy group. Gibson held the post a decade, but left in March to move closer to family in Oregon.
Literacy Volunteers of Essex and Franklin Counties currently has about 100 students, Burke said. It offers free, confidential tutoring on a one-to-one basis and in small groups to anyone older than age 16. Most of its students are people working toward high school graduate equivalency degrees (GED) or foreign workers who lack English skills, Burke said.
It also provides educational services to inmates at Moriah Shock in Mineville, Adironack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook and Bere Hill Correctional Facility in Malone.
"We're available to anybody who needs help," she said.
Literacy Volunteers of Essex and Franklin Counties has offices in Port Henry, Saranac Lake and Malone with a satellite site in Lake Placid.
Although Literacy Volunteers of Essex and Franklin Counties only works with adults, it promotes reading at young ages through its Roo the Reader program. The program mascot, Roo the Reader, recently distributed free books during Moriah Madness at Moriah Central School.
"The idea is to encourage reading at all levels and to raise awareness of our program," Burke said. "Hopefully children take the books home. Maybe their mom, dad, grandma pick it up and get information about Literacy Volunteers."
Literacy Volunteers of Essex and Franklin Counties also sponsors special events to promote reading and its programs. In March it held a Scrabble tournament in Saranac Lake. May 7 it will hold its ninth annual spelling bee in Saranac Lake. Individuals or businesses that would like to sponsor a team can contact Burke at 546-3008.
While the Literacy Volunteers of Essex and Franklin Counties program is successful, Burke hopes it grows.
"I want to expand the program as much as possible," she said.