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Pushing For a Literate Buffalo

By Adam Czelusta:

In any city you might expect to encounter a number of people struggling to read or having trouble finding places to learn English, and that doesn’t exclude Buffalo.  

The definition of literacy according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) is using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve goals, and to develop knowledge and potential.  Thirty percent of the residents in Buffalo are functionally illiterate and that includes people born here and an increasing number of refugees – some of the refugees were doctors or teachers in their home country that can’t get those jobs here due to language barriers.  People from all skill levels and all backgrounds fall into the category and it poses a big problem, not only for the illiterate people themselves but for the city as a whole.  In this country if you can’t read or speak English it can be very detrimental to your way of life.  You may be unable to vote in governmental elections, figure out directions to a destination, read a manual to operate something, get a job, read job postings to get the job, or even enjoy this article.  It’s something we don’t realize because being literate flows with our everyday life.  Imagine if you couldn’t read or speak English – how lost would you feel?  And not being able to transfer creative thought to hard copy?  That would be unfortunate.  Thankfully we live in a community that cares for one another and there are options out there.  Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo and Erie County offers help for those in need.    

Since 1965, Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo and Erie County (LV) has offered two core programs for students including, basic reading and English as a second language.  The program at LV is different than normal classroom tutoring because the flexible times of the volunteers create more availability for the students.  It is the only one-on-one literacy program where the student can learn to read or speak English for free.  They also offer a “drop-in” center where people can go to for immediate needs, and drop in and out as they please during the hours available.  They do, however, encourage students to meet with tutors one-on-one.  As Amy Lawrence, Program Director of LV, points out, “We help with immediate needs but at the same time we need to teach skills for the future.”


Though these core programs are more geared toward adult literacy, they are expanding to help the children in the community as well.  Lawrence states, “We try to get in every corner of the city… working with kids at an early age – we hope not to see them as illiterate adults”.  Partnerships with Buffalo City Schools provide contracted tutoring services with certified teachers for after school programs.  Along with the city schools they’ve collaborated at juvenile detention centers and have donated spaces at local churches, community centers and different library branches for their youth programs.

Foreseeing budget cuts from New York State, in March 2010 the organization moved from the historic Squire Mansion on Main Street to a more appropriate place on the second floor of Buffalo’s Central Library, located at 1 Lafayette Street downtown.  The move offers a much wider access to books and opportunities to coordinate services with the library.  It allows the organization to focus more on student needs rather than rent payments and maintenance issues.  Better training facilities and more room added to this “wonderful move”.  They’ve also gained a growing number of students and tutors.


LV is threatened with a 32 percent cut in funding from the NYS Department of Education.  Statistics show that out of the students post-tested after one year, more than half increased their ability to read, write and speak English.  They have a success rate of about 55 percent with students improving at least one grade level, though many of the students do show more than one level improvement.  Without the funding it could be a severe blow to the organization and the city.  These cuts would damage the future of fellow Buffalonians in need.  Without the funding they would be unable to support the students as they have been doing.  Organizations such as this one are just as important to the future of the city as the public schools.  A full force of literate people in this community could help boost the city’s economy by producing a more productive citizenry. We have seen an increase in the number of immigrants coming to Buffalo, meaning that there has never been a better time to support Literacy Volunteers than now.        

You can help.  To become a tutor or volunteer in any way for Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo and Erie County visit their website at or call them at (716) 876-8991.  They have a waiting list of students that need tutors and they pair you up by fitting the person in need to your personality.  Volunteers have claimed to learn a lot about themselves while meeting with students of different cultures, further proving that it’s a great opportunity.  If you don’t have the time to donate, the organization is also in need of monetary donations.

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