Reading is Believing
June 11, 2011Print this article
From the back of an abandoned chapel, Lynne Verhaagh watches as 12-year-old Alicia* screams and throws a chair across the empty room. Tears flood the girl's thin, pale face as she picks up another chair and hurls it. Her mother has recently died of cancer, and pain and anger flow from Alicia in a display of raw emotion.
Lynne knows Alicia very well. A little more than two years before the incident in the chapel, Alicia appeared at the Fergus Falls, Minn., corps of The Salvation Army — her hair a mess, dirty clothes hanging from her gaunt frame. Angry and alone, Alicia was living out a story of pain, and Lynne knew she was desperate.
“She kept screaming: ‘I hate God! I hate God for giving me this kind of life,'” says Lynne, a sweet-voiced Fergus Falls native. “She was very angry.” Alicia was battling for her life from the moment Lynne met her.
Alicia never knew her father. She had seen him once, for 15 minutes. Addicted to drugs and alcohol, her mother was only present in the flesh. Alicia was forced to act as the parent, providing food and taking care of her mother who was strung out and incapable of holding a job. half the time the cupboards were empty. Alicia wanted nothing more than to get away.
So, at the age of 10, she took up hitchhiking. She spent long, cold nights on the shoulder of I-94 with her thumb out. Jumping into a stranger's car was an easy way for Alicia to escape. She started skipping school, running away for days.
She had slipped through the cracks and now, at age 12, was living in survival mode. All she could think about was finding food to eat and a place to lay her head at night. But, ditching school meant missing valuable lessons, and Alicia fell far behind her grade level in reading.
Statistics show that two-thirds of children who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Girls between 16 and 19 who have below average reading skills are six times more likely to have children outside of marriage than other girls their ages.
One afternoon, Alicia learned that her mother had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Faced with another seemingly impossible challenge and a sense that she had no options, Alicia made a decision that would change her life forever: she ran to The Salvation Army.
Many of the children who find their way to The Salvation Army's doors are desperate. Pain and survival are the status quo; heartache is the norm. Poverty and lack of parenting push children into survival mode, and they quickly fall behind in reading comprehension.
Mission: Literacy lessons are being taught in 97 U.S. cities and internationally. | Read Now »
Alicia showed up at the Fergus Falls corps looking for anyone with whom to share her desperation. This was the day she met Lynne Verhaagh. Lynne and The Salvation Army took Alicia in, providing new clothes and food for her family and afterschool care for her and her brother. Alicia enrolled in the Mission: Literacy™ program. Through her persistent work with Mission: Literacy and follow-up from her tutor, Alicia began to ask questions about God and desired to learn more about him. After learning to read his Word, Alicia accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. What's more, she brought the story of God's redemption home with her, and because of her work in the Mission: Literacy program, her mother accepted Jesus, as well.
Mission: Literacy was developed by ABS in conjunction with Bank Street College of Education in New York City, which has been a leader in the field of literacy teaching since its founding in 1916. The program was designed to equip struggling readers, ages 8-12, with critical literacy skills as well as biblical principles for daily living.
A year and a half after coming to the Mission: Literacy program, Alicia's scraggly hair was washed, her clothes new and clean. She was fed and bathed. After completing 16 weeks of Mission: Literacy after school, Alicia was reading at grade level and receiving A's and B's in school. The scripture booklets used to teach Alicia how to read also taught her about Jesus and changed her heart. Mission: Literacy taught Alicia the importance of love, family and salvation. Now she was living back at home with her mother, caring for her each day. Alicia's life drastically changed as she gained confidence in school and learned what trusting God really meant.
This trust was tested in the fall of her second year with Lynne at The Salvation Army. Alicia's mother's cancer got worse, and in October 2010, she died.
Leaders of the after-school program came alongside Alicia, setting up her transition to living with her aunt and facilitating the burial and memorial service for her mother. It was in the chapel after the service where Lynne witnessed Alicia's raw display of helplessness. Lynne watched as Alicia cried out to God: “Why would you give me this life?” Throwing her chair across the chapel, she broke down under the pressure and prospect of life without her mother. Just when she thought her life had turned around, she was thrust back into sorrow.
After watching Alicia for some time from the back of the chapel, Lynne softly called her name, approached her and wrapped her in her arms. Lynne explained to Alicia that her mother, because of her acceptance of Christ as her Savior, was now in heaven. she told her that the Jesus she learned about in her Mission: Literacy studies had saved her mother. What came next was astounding: Alicia stopped crying. With strength and dignity, Alicia spoke to Lynne: “I've read about Jesus. I have Jesus in my heart.”
Of all the challenges Alicia had faced to this point in her life, this was the most difficult. But now she was equipped to deal with the loss of her mother. She would not be alone in her sorrow; she had “Jesus in her heart” and understood her mother's death in relation to Jesus's redemptive work on the cross.
Alicia's life was saved, her mother redeemed. And, a desire had been planted deep within her to pursue the God she encountered through Mission: Literacy, using her newly acquired reading skills to learn more about him.
Alicia's story of redemption is just one of many coming out of the Mission: Literacy program. Since the ABS partnership with The Salvation Army began in 2006, roughly 851 individuals from 260 different corps have been trained in the use of the curriculum, just like Lynne. Stories of changed lives emerge every single day.
Close to 86 percent of children who have had 16 or more tutoring sessions show measurable improvement. The average overall improvement is seven reading levels as measured by the assessment guide provided in the curriculum.
Around the world, Mission: Literacy is chipping away at illiteracy with the most effective tool: God's Word. The two-fold benefit of the program is changing hearts and minds for Christ's kingdom and equipping the next generation to effectively engage and respond to the written Word of God.
*Name changed for privacy
Thanks to the support of our faithful financial partners, American Bible Society has been engaging people with the life-changing message of God’s Word for more than 200 years.
Help us share God's Word where needed most.
Sign up to stay in touch with how God is changing lives with his Word!