For a long time, Andrew Washington was a very angry young man.
Words had always mocked him as a child. They were too long to read, too difficult to pronounce, and impossible to understand. Frustrated, Andrew decided that if words did not come easily to him, something else would. He buried his deep unease about his literacy skills by turning to sports. He became a champion athlete in high school. He soaked up the praise of others and went from one grade to the next on his sports skills alone. But deep down, he was still unhappy.
In the mid-1970s, while he was still in high school in Syracuse, Andrew approached ProLiteracy’s member program, The Learning Place (now called the Newland Center) and met with a tutor to improve his reading and writing skills. When the quick results he anticipated did not materialize, he quit.
In his twenties, Andrew got a sports scholarship to college, but because of his low literacy skills, he was unable to complete his studies.
The anger grew. He started partying heavily and hanging out in the streets.
One day, Andrew saw clearly that his life had taken a turn for the worse. He vowed to change. He decided to confront his biggest tormentor head on—he decided to learn how to read.
“It had taken me four years to say I needed help again,” he said, “I was very determined this time.”
Back at The Learning Place, Andrew sat down to write a story about himself. Within minutes, he gave up. His teacher came over and said, “We’ll do it one sentence at a time.”
She gave him a book to take home and read. The next day, she asked him if he read the book.
“No,” Andrew said, with a mixture of shame and anger. He had spent the evening skipping over words because he did not know how to sound them out.
“No problem,” said his tutor. “Let’s sit here and read together.”
Bit by bit, Andrew’s confidence grew as he started reading at higher grade levels.
Andrew started getting involved at The Learning Place and served as a role model for many other adult learners. His affable manner and inspiring story quickly earned him an invitation to join the board of The Learning Place.
In addition to a number of part-time jobs and his studies, Andrew has been an active community volunteer. He brings joy to children’s lives as Santa Claus over the holiday period. True to his commitment as a literacy advocate, the gifts Santa gives to local children are books. Santa often signs the books with a message letting children know that he will ask them about the books next year. He also remains committed to his role as an advocate for adult learners. He is a member of the Syracuse Masons and has been a public speaker at a wide range of community literacy events.
Today, Andrew volunteers at the Onondaga County Justice Center. He recognizes that for some inmates, a life of crime began with their anger over not being able to read. They identify with his story, he says, and look up to him as a positive role model. Andrew also wants to serve as a mentor to them, knowing full well how much the absence of one cost him in his own life.
Reading will never come easy for Andrew, but he perseveres. And his favorite people in the world serve as his biggest inspiration.
Many years ago, when Andrew’s grandkids asked him to read a bedtime story, he simply made one up while pretending to read.
The first time he actually read a book to them, he began to cry.
Today, his biggest joy is when “my grandkids give me too many books to read!”
Andrew Washington with Representative Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) at an event recognizing Rep. Buerkle for joining the House Adult Literacy Caucus