Without Literacy, There Are No Dreams

October 2014

Hazel Barstow was 90 years old when I taught her to read the word, “precipitation.”

“I always wanted to be a weather girl,” Hazel reminisced with a little chuckle. Then a shadow fell across her worn and tired face. “But they wouldn’t let me go to school, and so nothing …” She paused with emotion. “Nothing became of me. Nothing became of my life.”

This could not have been further from the truth. Hazel was one of the most determined and sharp-minded people I had ever met. She had worked as a nanny for a prominent local family for over four decades, becoming part of their clan, loving the children as her own and even acting as a confidante on business matters. Over the years, she taught herself some basic reading skills, but it was a laborious task. "The kids helped me. I was too embarrassed to ask an adult," she confessed. Nonetheless, she read the business section of the Providence Journal regularly and scolded me  for “not knowing what was going on in the economy.”  I can see her now, wagging a crooked finger in the air. “With your intellect,” she would bark, “you should be reading everything you can get your hands on.”

At the age of four, Hazel had been abandoned to the state of Massachusetts and institutionalized for lack of a more appropriate placement. In this institution, she received no formal education and instead worked in the kitchen from morning to night.  In her mid-twenties, she finally made it out. And at the age of 90, she was still trying to learn, still struggling to better herself, still striving - against all odds - to reach her potential. 

Hazel understood something I did not. She understood that without literacy, there are no dreams. There is only survival.

I had volunteered as her companion. I could not have begun to imagine the profound impact Hazel would have on my life.  

The “weather girl” conversation would be our last.  Hazel passed away two days later. 

Nothing became of me.  Nothing became of my life. 

That final conversation with Hazel is never far from my mind though more than ten years have come and gone.  “That’s just not true, Hazel,” I had whispered into the stillness of that late summer evening.  But I could not deny what Hazel was really trying to say, the unspoken question etched on her heart like a scar:  

Who might I have become?


Though Hazel’s story may seem unique, the present day reality of illiteracy in our country is startling. A 2012 study conducted by the US Department of Education and National Institute of Literacy, states that 32 million adults in the United States cannot read and that 21% of our population reads below a fifth grade level. (source Huffington Post; September 6, 2013)

At Literacy Volunteers of Washington County, we are working to combat adult illiteracy on several levels, offering free literacy programs to adults in Washington County and Southeastern, CT. Combined, nearly 26,000 adults in this area have literacy levels of 9th grade of lower. Our mission is to provide the tools and resources for people like Hazel — people struggling to better themselves and reach their true potential.

You are an essential part of the solution! 

Your generous financial contribution can help us provide dictionaries, textbooks, software for our literacy computer lab, laptop work stations, tutor training resources, and so much more.

CLICK HERE TO MAKE YOUR TAX DEDUCTIBLE ONLINE DONATION TODAY, or contact us directly at (401) 596-9411. Donor names are published in the LVWC Spring Newsletter.

You can also designate us as your charity of choice on Amazon Smile! Click here for more information.

There is no time to waste!  Nearly 26,000 adults in your area lack the necessary skills to better themselves and to reach their potential.

Your financial support could help put an end to the question, "Who might I have become?"

Kindest Regards, 

Marie Sheva

Development & Marketing Officer