In 2003, 14.5 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 16 lacked "basic prose literacy skills." That means they were either unable to read or understand any written information in English, or were limited to understanding short prose, "but nothing more advanced."
That's according to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy from the National Center for Education Statistics.
In Maryland, 11 percent of adults lacked basic literacy skills that year. In Prince George's County, it was 22 percent.
Those numbers were the highest in the state, and towered over illiteracy rates in neighboring counties like Howard (6 percent) and Montgomery (11).
In Laurel, one man and a small team of volunteers are trying to bring those numbers down.
"It's hard to imagine, isn't it?" said Bill Stoner, 69, of Laurel, the founder of the Greater Laurel Literacy Center. "People can speak English, but they can't read or write it."
Stoner founded the literacy center in 1987, after being stationed in Japan with the National Security Agency left him very aware of what it means to be illiterate.
"I couldn't read, write or speak the language," Stoner said. "I grew very sensitive to it."
When he came home, he read an article in the American Legion magazine about literacy programs, and the support the Legion was giving to then-First Lady Barbara Bush's efforts. He sent for information to start his own program, because he "wanted to do something in Laurel, in my little hometown."
'You have a need, you fulfill the need'
A 1961 graduate of Laurel High School, and a life-long Laurel resident, Stoner now lives in his childhood home. The literacy center started with a core group of volunteers, and people who came in from area houses of worship — where he had priests and rabbis read a flier to their congregations, rather than post the information on a bulletin board.
"We started to get business," he said. "And we just grew and grew and grew and grew."
It helped that he worked at NSA on Fort Meade, where he also helped run a literacy program for cleaning staff.
"I was in a position to say, 'Hey, I have a literacy program, let's get something going,' " he said. "You have a need, you fulfill the need. You have people that need help, and you find people that can help them and you put them together. ... The only degree you need (to tutor) is a degree in caring."
The center has been in several locations — first in the living room of Stoner's old house in Montpelier — but has called the basement of the Laurel Armory on Montgomery Street home for about a year. Stoner has run the center for nearly 27 years, during another stay in Japan and throughout the years following the death of his mother in 2001, when he threw himself into renovating her house.
The numbers dwindled — at one point, Stoner said the center had as many as 100 volunteers and 100 students; now those numbers are about a half-dozen volunteers and 12 students, but Stoner's trying to build it back up again.
His methods are uncomplicated and start with basics.
"When you have someone who can't read at all, you start with the alphabet," Stoner said. "I have grown men in here singing the ABCs, because they remember it from when they were children. You get the letters down, and you take it from there."
Over the years, Stoner guessed the center has helped a few hundred people. While some current students hail from South Korea, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago, the majority have always been native English speakers. The students vary in age, ethnicity, native language and literacy level — many do have basic literacy skills but, for others, the tutors have to start from scratch.
"It's tremendously uplifting, when you see light bulbs go off," Stoner said. "You see it in their face, and in their eyes, when they understand a concept and continue to progress."
'People have been passed through'
Not being able to read means building up an elaborate system of coping mechanisms, Stoner said.
"You have to have other people do things for you," he said. " 'Oh, I forgot my glasses, can you read this for me?' That's a common one. I've asked people who come in and can't read at all, 'How do you survive?' "
The first student who ever walked through the center's doors in the late 1980s was a graduate of a Howard County high school — in a school system widely regarded as one of the best in the state. She couldn't read the first three words on the pre-test Stoner gives his students: See. Look. Mother.
"People have been passed through," Stoner said. "They sat quietly in class, didn't disrupt anyone and the teacher just passed them through. They didn't have to do anything."
The center's services are free, and students can come in once or twice a week for one-on-one sessions with their tutor. It's a long process that requires commitment, Stoner said — not for a couple of weeks, but a couple of years.
"The first and biggest step is the hardest and most important: Coming through the door," Stoner said.
If you or anyone you know could benefit from the Greater Laurel Literacy Center, call 301-498-7550.