From the United Way: Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara improves work path for residents

Tara Schafer

There are thousands of adults in Erie and Niagara counties who are functionally illiterate, meaning that they read below the 5th grade level. This has a profound impact on children, families and the entire region. And, while Niagara County has service providers (like Orleans Niagara BOCES Adult Education) that help to increase literacy, there are few programs that provide instruction for adults with low literacy levels, so our services are in very high demand.

Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara (LNYBN) is the region's sole provider of free, one-on-one adult literacy services. Our mission is to develop literacy skills by providing free tutoring in Erie & Niagara counties through engagement and training of diverse community volunteers. We provide reading and English language learning to approximately 350 adults per year, using over 200 trained community volunteer tutors.

In 2018, with the help of the United Way of Greater Niagara, LNYBN launched a project designed to maximize services in Niagara County. We opened Literacy Drop-In Centers in the cities of Niagara Falls and Lockport as part of a larger outreach project aimed at boosting access to literacy assistance throughout Western New York. LNYBN operates the Niagara Falls Drop-In Center at the Earl W. Brydges Branch of the Niagara Falls Public Library and the Gary Baxter Literacy Drop-In Center in Lockport at Grace Episcopal Church.

Literacy Drop-In Centers offer adults immediate access to tutoring services in Basic Reading or English as a Second Language. This access helps low literate adults complete job applications, review resumes, read health forms, and perform other similar activities requiring basic literacy knowledge. We open Drop-In Centers in geographically diverse, convenient, neighborhood-based locations for easy access and use by adults and families. They are safe places for adults to confront their difficulty in reading and literacy anonymously.

Drop-In Centers are especially important because the need for adult literacy services far exceeds LNYBN’s capacity. Right now, 147 people are waiting to be matched with a tutor. Drop-In Centers provide much quicker access.

Recently, community leaders asked us to open a second Niagara Falls Drop-In Center location at Catholic Charities in Niagara Falls and we have plans to open another Drop-In Center at Niagara Falls Medical Center on Sept. 23. We are considering more locations as well. Several human service organizations have asked us to provide services within their facilities because they know that the people whom they work with need to increase their literacy in order to achieve other life goals.

Despite LNYBN’s efforts, our region continues to face a literacy crisis. Low literacy costs more than $225 BILLION annually due to unemployment. With a 20% rate of functional illiteracy across Erie and Niagara counties (30% in the City of Buffalo and 25% in Niagara Falls), LNYBN most often sees literacy services as the critical factor to employment. Many requests for help are tied directly to job preparation and placement. We see this as people come to us after looking for work, only to find that a great number lack the proper reading comprehension to participate in entrance examinations for even entry-level positions.

Research shows that improving literacy and education has huge benefits. Adult education students earned 53% more per year than adults not enrolled in programs. Students attending 100 hours or more of programming made $10,000 per year more in annual income.

United Way of Greater Niagara has just solidified its support for Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara and our Literacy Drop-In Centers project for the next two years. They understand that without programs like ours, the future is bleak for many Niagara County residents — stuck in a cycle of poverty, reliant on government support. The most recent statistic is that over 70% of welfare recipients have low reading levels and that high school drop-outs ages 25-34 are more than three times as likely to receive public assistance as high school graduates. Without intervention, people on welfare may be stuck on “the system” with slim chances for upward mobility. LNYBN, with the backing of the United Way of Greater Niagara, has created a cost-effective solution to a problem that has plagued our region for years and is offering a path to prosperity for thousands of Niagara County residents.


Tara Schafer is the executive director at Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara. For more information about Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara, visit or call 876-8991.

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