Imagine not being able to read a simple children's book to a toddler. Or to understand a five-word headline in a newspaper. While that is beyond the comprehension for most people reading this, there are numerous individuals living in Jennings County who can't read or write beyond a very low level, if at all. Lack of literacy has always been a problem in this area. No definitive statistics are available, but some estimate that 10 percent of the adult population here is illiterate. "We don't know the exact number, but we know there are a lot of people who can't read beyond the first- or second-grade level," said Janice Suding. Suding is director of the Jennings County Education Center (JCEC), also known as adult education, where a new literacy program began this spring. A news story in the April 11 issue of the Plain Dealer reported details. "We're building this from scratch, which is difficult," said Megan Jones, the program's coordinator. "We have 10 participants (students) ready to learn. Now we need more volunteers to help teach them." Jones and assistant Jill Dickson, part-time employees currently funded through a startup grant, are now beating the bushes to recruit more volunteers to tutor people. "You can't learn to read by yourself," Jones said. "These people need one-on-one time with tutors." Volunteer tutors from all walks of life are welcome as long as they have a high school diploma or GED equivalence. The desire to want to assist others, obviously, is another requirement. "Volunteers should be eager to help, organized, responsible and open minded," Jones said. "More than anything, they should care." Teaching others reading and writing skills is a tremendously rewarding way to help and build the community, Dickson noted. "We learned the other day about a man in his 60s who can't read," she said. "He cried when he related his story. If we can help someone like that so he can read to his grandchildren and just in general go about life with less anxiety, that's what it's all about." The program's students - 10 have started so far - are eager to learn, according to Jones and Dickson, and have considerable resilience. "To live and survive without being able to read takes a lot of grit," Jones said. "It is amazing what these people can then accomplish when they gain a literacy basis. That opens the door to so much more for them." Much of the illiteracy in Jennings County is linked to socioeconomic factors. The high poverty rate has a direct correlation to lack of reading skills. "It can be hard to learn when you're hungry," Dickson said. Bad experiences in school can contribute, too. "That's why we teach using methods catered to each student," Jones said. "We can work with them by reading newspapers and magazines, or playing word and reading games with them, for example. We don't want them feeling like they're back in school." There are also immigrants in Jennings County who want to learn more English. "I've been working with one man from another country who is fascinating," Dickson related. "He is here legally, has his own apartment and works at a good job. Learning these people's stories and teaching them is so rewarding for tutors." Then there are others, such as another person Jones talked about. "He has a high school diploma, not from here, and wants to go to Ivy Tech," she said. "But he can't read well enough to take college classes. We are finding there are a lot of people like that who somehow fall through the cracks." Many of the students also need more literary skills to complete their GED. "More and more workplaces are requiring at least high school or GED," Jones said. "We can help people get there." Math and computer skills are taught through the program, too. Around five years ago, the Jennings County Literacy Council disbanded. It, too, was a volunteer-based group. "Jan (Suding) saw the need for a new literacy effort and got the grant to get this started," Jones said. "She deserves a lot of credit." The program works under the auspices of the Jennings County School Corp. and is based at the JCEC wing of the North Vernon Education and Training Center (ETC). The Jennings County Public Library partners in the effort by providing classroom space and computers there. "During weekdays, we can teach here (at the ETC)," Jones said. "On evenings, we use the library. The library staff has been very enthusiastic and helpful to us." Transportation can also be arranged for students who need a way to get to their sessions and back home. "Now our emphasis is on outreach to get more volunteers," Dickson said. "We met with the Kiwanis Club and plan to meet with other groups like that. We've been talking to church pastors, business people and everyone we can think of to line up volunteer tutors." Those interested in volunteering can contact Jones or Dickson at the JCEC at 346-2905. Individuals needing help can also call the same number.