Literacy Volunteers Change Lives

The Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven helps adult learners gain reading and writing skills for managing daily tasks and more.

Small classes make a difference. Photo credit: Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven.

People seek help from the Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven for many reasons. Some want to improve their literacy to find a better job. Others want the enriching experience of reading stories to their children or grandchildren. For non-native speakers, learning how to read instructions and signs is essential for navigating daily tasks. It could be a matter of life and death.

"Our program is lifestyle based," explains Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven Executive Director Donna Violante. "We incorporate our students' goals into the program. If they say they need to get a driver's license, then we pair them with a tutor who works with them on a driver's manual. If someone says, 'I want to read the Bible,' we work with the Bible. Some have diabetes and say they can't read the instructions on their prescriptions, so we have them work with a health literacy tutor."

To illustrate the connection between literacy and health, Violante cites the example of the common prescription instruction – take once daily. Because 'once' is also the Spanish word for the number eleven, Violante says, native Spanish speakers have mistakenly taken eleven pills when only one is prescribed.

"Imagine people who come to a doctor's office and the first thing they are handed is an intimidating form. They can't fill it out," Violante says. "There are people who have signed consent forms for major surgery without knowing what happens. It's a major issue. Mortality rates are twice as high for people who are not literate."

Founded in 1976, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven trains volunteer tutors it then matches with small groups or for one-on-one sessions. Most of the tutors, Violante says, are people who have a passion to read that they want to pass on to others. Knowing a second language is not required. Classes are free and taken by about 1,500 adults annually at its main location in Science Park and partner sites throughout the region, such as public libraries and Gateway Community College.

"We try to be where the people are in their neighborhoods because a great number of the people we serve are low income and either walk or take public transportation to their lessons," says Violante.

While programs for non-native speakers are always full, Violante says the organization is continually trying to reach more native English speakers with low literacy levels. The challenge, Violante says, is how to reach people that can't read your message or who may feel stigmatized and unwilling to seek help.

"To come to us and say I need help is a big step forward. We try to be welcoming and nonjudgmental," Violante says.

Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven is supported with individual, corporate, and foundation contributions, including grants from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, its largest funding source in the past three years, and the Valley Community Foundation.

Celebrate the success of Literacy Volunteers students in the Valley program and thank the tutors and donors who helped them succeed on June 8, 5:30 p.m. at the Derby Public Library. Guest speakers and readers include students whose writing is published in the 2016 edition of Hear Our Voices.

To learn more about Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, visit its profile on

Did you know?

As many as 25 percent of adults in New Haven read at a less than a fifth-grade level, according to Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven.

This story is part of the Inspiration Monday story series produced by The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.