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1 in 7 Utah adults struggle to read. Here's how one program is trying to help


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SALT LAKE CITY — One in seven adults in Utah struggle to read. A program designed to help is expanding to reach more people across the Beehive State.

Project Read first started in 1984 in the Utah County area where they've been serving adult learners, ever since. Valerie Curtis was one of those learners — she has spent most of her life reading through pictures.

"I've done a lot of picture-reading in my life," said Curtis.

Words like giraffe, a word she struggled with because it sounded different than the letters on the page, didn't make a day-to-day difference. But other words — road signs, for example, would.

"I had no idea what it was saying," said Curtis. It was even difficult to perform everyday chores like grocery shopping.

"Very seldom would I ever buy fresh vegetables, because I didn't know how to figure out pound for pound," said Curtis. Labels have meaning when you can read them and Curtis was very aware that she could not.

"This is something you hide your whole life," said Curtis.

She did hide it from her school days to post-high school graduation – Curtis even sent her kids through the school system, all while not being able to read herself.

That's where Project Read comes in, a place where you can have one on one tutoring as well as classroom learning sessions for reading, math and computer skills – and everything is free.

Shauna Brown, executive director at Project Read, started there as a volunteer tutor.

"It's amazing how much progress they can make in a short amount of time with a dedicated tutor who will come in and meet them right where they are," she said.

Brown said the day that changed her life was the day she helped a young mother who came to her with a reading problem that Brown never even thought twice about.

"She showed up with a medicine bottle, and she didn't know how to dose the medicine for her 4-year-old," said Brown. "And I thought, this could be life or death."

Those everyday needs are what Brown and others help adults with at Project Read.

When the program first started nearly 40 years ago, one in 12 Utahns was at the lowest reading rate. That reading rate was determined solely by someone's ability to read.

Since then, the definition of literacy has expanded to include reading, writing, math and other skills. The broader definition plays a part in the increase in illiteracy rates surveys show for Utah.

The most recent survey shows one in seven Utahns is reported at the lowest reading level.

It's one of the reasons, Brown said, Project Read has expanded its efforts to include a new location in Salt Lake County while serving still in Utah County.

"I think people are surprised to know that we have 100,000 people walking around in Salt Lake who can't read and write," said Brown.

Reading has changed everything for people like Ellen Peterson who joined the new Salt Lake program after the former program at the Literacy Action Center was discontinued.

"My reading goals are to learn more vocabulary words, and be able to understand and write summaries, like a book report," said Peterson.

Reading has changed Curtis's life.

After graduating from Project Read, Curtis got a new job, bought a house, and even lost nearly 200 pounds just because she could read the labels on the food she was buying.

"If you're out there, and you're hiding your ability to read, you don't have to do that anymore," said Curtis. "You can just be happy again."

Words now paint the picture of a life Curtis didn't know she could have.

"Sometimes when I think back, I can hardly believe that I'm here, but I am."

If you or someone you know could use Project Read, visit projectreadUtah.org or call 801-448-7323.

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Erin Cox
Erin Cox is an Emmy sward-winning special projects reporter for KSL-TV.

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