WASHINGTON -- Growing up in North Carolina, Rita Daniels watched the struggles of both her parents' mothers, who were illiterate. One learned to read and write when she was in her 60s. The other never did.
When Daniels grew up and came to the nation's capital to study adult education, she encountered many people still suffering the inconveniences and humiliation associated with illiteracy: people who couldn't go to the grocery store, pay a bill or even navigate Metro without help. It was a secret struggle, invisible to most.
"Unless you live it, you take it for granted that life comes with high reading skills," Daniels said.
Daniels doesn't take those skills for granted. Six years ago, she began working as an instructor at Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, an organization that provides reading, math and other classes for adults at a sixth grade level or below. Today she is LVA's executive director.
Like the illiteracy it exists to combat, LVA is really only visible to those who know what to look for: Tucked away on the ground floor of an elderly housing complex in D.C.'s Edgewood neighborhood, LVA serves about 200 students. The youngest is 18 and the oldest is 81. Most have lived in the nation's capital all their lives, while others are new to the United States, primarily from the Caribbean and West Africa.
On a recent evening, students -- ranging from senior citizens to teenagers -- popped their heads into the main office to say hello before proceeding into a computer lab for a basic Internet skills class.
As they reviewed the different parts of the keyboard and the hazards of pop-up windows, the students were cheered on by Scott Stafford, a ponytailed alumnus of George Washington University who has worked as an LVA instructor for 16 years.
In addition to teaching classes, Stafford works individually with students, including one who has stayed with him for all 16 years.
He and the program staff can proudly recount stories of the man who came in with an abysmal credit score and ended up teaching financial planning to students and teachers, the man who couldn't read but now tutors young children in his neighborhood, and the woman who proudly reported her greatest triumph: "I can read to my grandchildren."
"I used to be like [these students], sitting in class scared to say anything," recalled Cheryl Pryor, an LVA employee who herself was once a young mother, struggling to go to school, care for her baby and find a job.
When a job and life-skills class led her to a position at LVA, she said that seeing people fight for their education reminded her strikingly of her own experiences.
These days, Pryor is in charge of registering new students, testing each to assess grade level and to determine if they have a learning disability -- nearly 80 percent of LVA students do, most of them previously undiagnosed.
According to Daniels, many nervous potential students are encouraged to stay just because of Pryor's sympathetic presence.
"I don't lie to them," said Pryor. "When I talk to them, I've been there too."
She said her best advice for new students is not to rush, because she understands that learning can be a slow process, and that’s not bad.
"I tell them, 'Take your time, you'll get there. Don't put too much in your head at once. If you do," she said. "it'll run over like a water bottle."