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While food may assuage hunger, reading and writing open doors to more permanent self-sufficiency for people in many underprivileged parts of the world.

"In Third World countries, literacy is an opportunity to open life to something profound," said Lynn Curtis, director of international development, Laubach Literacy International.The non-profit organization, founded in 1955, goes into many countries of the world to help create literacy programs that meet the needs of particular groups of people, Curtis said.

The agency deals "with the poorest of the poor," he said.

The Coalville resident spends considerable time himself visiting in the countries targeted for Laubach programs. He recently returned from Haiti, where pervasive poverty has been exacerbated by the political upheaval surrounding the "Papa Doc" Duvalier regime.

The late Frank C. Laubach, missionary, educator and founder of the literacy organization, visited Haiti in 1947. He was concerned that while 80 percent of the population spoke Creole, the official language was French. He advocated the teaching of Creole to those people who were destined to speak it. Not until Duvalier left the island nation, however, was Creole declared the national language, Curtis said.

Even so, approximately 85 percent of Haitians remain illiterate. Only recently a standardized spelling project was undertaken by the Haitian government to put Creole into a more comprehensive written form.

Curtis said that in Haiti, as in most of the countries in which Laubach has programs, literacy is the key to productivity. Unemployment and illiteracy are sad companions that perpetuate poverty and its related social ills.

Often, Laubach volunteers do not go into Third World countries with prepared materials. Textbooks are created to fit needs and often relate to local work opportunities. (An example from Colombia shows workers in an adversary relationship to their "bosses" - a reflection of real life.)

Using sounds, words and picture association to develop simple charts accompanied by vocabulary development and comprehension exercises, the organization has helped create materials in 314 languages.

Laubach volunteers work through village or neighborhood groups committed to increasing literacy as a route to better economic conditions. Laubach makes direct grants to these groups, provides training for local teachers, works to facilitate interaction with existing resources, helps the community design its own literacy materials and gets groups started on the road to literacy.

In Haiti, six groups are working, each with a little different focus and format, Curtis said. Each group is helping approximately 200 people to learn fundamental reading and math skills.

Results are already becoming apparent in some cases. Some of the Haitian participants have parlayed their ability to read and write into small businesses, such as creating and marketing native art works. Their abilities help them become part of the business community, rather than exploitable laborers.


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Dramatic changes

The effects of literacy can sometimes be dramatic. Take, for example, the town of Tinaja de Negrete, Mexico.

Nine years ago, the community was a stark place with "stone houses, the dust of the desert, scorpions and snakes," said Lynn Curtis, director of international development, Laubach Literacy International. Its populace had no medical care, no transportation, no jobs and only the water that could be trapped in a reservoir. Many of the able-bodied, desperate for jobs, went to the United States, further depleting the community's human resources.

Today, Curtis said, Tinaja has an identity. It has running water, rebuilt homes, an aquaculture system and productive agricultural areas where fruits and berries are produced. Beehives produce honey for consumption and sale.

As their standard of living rose, the people of Tinaja were able to convince a dentist to come. Their demand of better health care led to the training of paraprofessionals in their own community. Ultimately, they built a small clinic.