An estimated 17 percent of the Centre County population can’t read or write a paragraph, according to David Whitmarsh, Mid-State Literacy Council board president.
One organization is working to change that — with no government funding.
On Wednesday evening, the Mid-State Literacy Council hosted its 17th annual Ron and Mary Maxwell Community Spelling Bee at Foxdale Village.
Eight teams of three, consisting of sponsored members from businesses in Centre County, battled seven rounds over the course of two and a half hours. The bee began with the word “chartreuse” and ended with the word “myrmecophile.”
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The team The Spellicans won the competition with members Hilary Appelman, Tian Luo and Ed Strause.
“It’s a fun event for the community. It’s fun to have adults engaged. When the folks from Mid-State contact all of the local businesses, looking for sponsors, they are alerting them about this hidden problem,” said Katie O’Toole, who works for Penn State’s College of Communications.
O’Toole says the hidden problem is “a stigma attached to being illiterate. It’s not easy to think in a community like ours, that’s so well off, that there are people who are illiterate.”
Last year, Mid-State provided private tutoring and classes to close to 300 adults with hopes of improving their reading, writing, math and English language skills.
“Most importantly, this is a fundraiser,” said Melina Lindsey, Centre County literacy coordinator and committee co-chairwoman for the spelling bee. “Money is the biggest issue at the center. It’s incredible working with our volunteers, but funding is an issue since we lost government assistance in 2011.”
She said the work the center does is changing lives.
“Last year the center helped a man that had been working part time. He and his partner were having a baby. His boss told him that if he improved his literacy skills, he could advance in his position.” Lindsey said “within four months he obtained the promotion.”
Many teams in Wednesday’s competition were eliminated during a round that included the names of flowers. Participants were asked to spell words like “coreopsis,” and later, “pterygium.”
And it got even more difficult when O’Toole asked the group called The Buzz Words to spell “teratology.” They spelled the word, which relates to the “scientific study of congenital abnormalities and abnormal formations,” as “terratology,” their first mistake of the evening.
The words got even more challenging when the Foxdale Fanatix were eliminated with the word “stymieing.” Later came the words “quincunx,” “kedgeree” and “polystichous.”
“The ability to read makes for a more functional life, one that you can provide for yourself and family, which is important because it makes you a productive citizen and what you learn you can pass on to others,” said Eva Cooper, who drove from Carlisle to support the fundraiser.