Published January 22, 2015
DACULA — Walter Robinson grew up around Watkinsville with a secret that he carried all the way to upstate New York when he became a man. He guarded his secret with shyness to avoid too much interaction with others while working with his hands in manual-labor jobs.
“I just knew how to do things,” Robinson said, recalling what his father taught him on the farm he sharecropped. “I was agile with my hands and mind and could figure things out.”
But as hard as he tried to keep his secret, people figured out that Robinson couldn’t read or write. Whites and blacks made fun of him, he said.
“I didn’t let it get to me,” Robinson continued. “I was determined to feed my family when I became a grown man.
“If I was to get rowdy with these guys (who were harassing him), then my family would be the one that would go hungry.”
Robinson’s reading deficit was the product of sporadic classroom attendance. The nine Robinson children worked the farm with their father, and it took all of them working every day. The only day Robinson could attend school was on rainy days, and he walked eight miles to get there.
Robinson entered adulthood with big dreams to have a family with his sweetheart, Katie, and for each of his children to get a good education.
As much as he tried to keep his secret from the children, they eventually figured it out, too. Not until December 2013 did Robinson’s three children, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren hear him read the Christmas story from Scripture for the first time. The family burst out cheering and gave him a standing ovation.
He was 75.
Georgia Literacy Missions
As many as 1.5 million Georgians share Robinson’s secret, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This population consistently represents 17% of the state’s residents who are 25 or older and didn’t graduate from high school. Most lack basic prose literary skills, as described by the National Center for Education Statistics.
“Most jobs require at least a ninth-grade reading level,” said Paulette DeHart, a Georgia Baptist state missionary responsible for literacy missions, made possible by the Cooperative Program. “Low literacy levels negatively affect the economy, criminal activity, and quality of life.”
When DeHart learned of Robinson’s desire to read, she connected him with one of her trained counselors, Janice Harrison. A former elementary school teacher and church librarian, Harrison began working at Hebron Baptist Church in their library more than 15 years ago.
While at a library training session, she learned about Adult Reading and Writing (ARW) curriculum and teaching methods in a course on literacy missions.
“I had never heard of literacy missions as a church ministry outreach,” Harrison said. That class led to what she calls an awakening and growth time as God showed her that the missional Scriptures she had been reading all of her life applied to her here and now. Now she understands.
“You teach English as you teach about God,” Harrison said.
When one of Robison’s daughters contacted DeHart to determine if anyone could help her dad learn to read the Bible, Harrison agreed to meet with him at the Dacula Public Library.
“The Lord has been in his life, I could see, all the way through in helping him to provide for his family and give him work,” Harrison said.
Harrison soon discovered that Robinson was a motivated learner.
“He learned really fast and did all of his homework,” Harrison said.
“I’m retired, so this is what I want to do,” said Walter, a lifelong Baptist.
Robinson now has a library card and regularly checks out books “all by myself.” And when Harrison makes assignments, he gladly does mini book reports.
Harrison recently retired from Hebron Baptist, but not from this ministry.
“I’m retired from being paid but I’m not retired from serving the Lord through literacy missions because that’s what I love,” she said.
Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming. For more information about Georgia Baptist literacy missions, contact Paulette DeHart at email@example.com or visiting http://gabaptist.org/literacy-missions.
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