What would your world be like if you could not read? It would be very small, very stressful, and very sad.

In 1977, I discovered that 23 million American and 52,000 Richmond-area adults couldn’t read. I was overwhelmed and couldn’t believe it. I spent 38 years of my professional life at the University of Richmond. I didn’t know anyone who couldn’t read — at least, I didn’t think I did.

I spent the next decade reading, researching, and discovering all I could about this little known social problem. I call it America’s disgrace.

It is amazing what inspired volunteers can and do accomplish. Under the auspices of Altrusa International of Richmond (a community service organization), the READ Center was founded. It operated from my dining room table and the trunk of my car for four years until we opened our first office.

Today, the READ Center is a dynamic model agency, teaching adults to read and giving them hope for their future in our literate world.

I also discovered my life’s mission and the meaning of volunteerism. This discovery changed my life and has kept me busy for 40 years.

At 87 years old, I no longer chair literacy conferences, present workshops, or travel throughout Virginia and the East Coast speaking to groups about adult illiteracy, but I am still very much involved with READ and our mission.

Oh, the stories I could tell. Like when I asked a student why he finally decided to learn to read. His response: “When I gave my wife a sympathy card for her birthday. It was such a pretty card I knew she would like it.” I still get chills when I recall this story.

Call the READ Center (804-288-9930) if you would like to volunteer and perhaps change a life (as well as your own life, like I did).

Aren’t we fortunate that I can write this letter and you can read it?

-Jean Proffitt, READ Center Founder and Board Member

This letter was published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch letters to the editor section.

It’s National Volunteer Week and we’re celebrating all of the wonderful volunteers who make our work possible. If you would like to be added to our mailing list about future volunteer opportunities, fill out a volunteer interest form.