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About 85,000 adults in Kent County read below a fourth grade level, non-profit organization says

The Literacy Center of West Michigan works with native and non-native English speakers to improve communication confidence.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The Lyoya family attorney Ven Johnson has said that Patrick Lyoya, a Congolese refugee, did understand English, but he wasn't fluent in it.     

The Literacy Center of West Michigan estimates that 85,000 adults in Kent County read below a fourth grade level. Dr. Wendy Falb, the non-profit organization's executive director, says anytime there's a problem with communication that can lead to an uncomfortable or stressful situation. 

The center works with about 800 people a year to help prevent situations like that and improve communication confidence. 

"We are the largest provider of adult education that is community based in the state of Michigan," Dr. Falb says. "We have family literacy, we have workplace and workforce development work, as well as one-on-one tutoring.

The organization serves both native and non-native English speakers.

"(We help) people that English is their first language, their native language, but they don't have strong reading and writing skills. So we work with them, as well as immigrants and refugees whose first language is not English, and they're learning to gain proficiency in English so that they can have a full sense of belonging in West Michigan," Dr. Falb says.

She says that sense of belonging can be lost for those who aren't fluent English speakers, especially when they need to communicate with their doctor, their boss, or their child's teacher.

"It takes a lot of bandwidth to try to decode and understand when you're not fluent in language," Dr. Falb says. "And so that takes up a lot of your cognitive space."

And the recently released video of the shooting death of Patrick Lyoya, where Officer Schurr can be heard asking Lyoya if he speaks English, can show how a language barrier can play a negative role when communicating.

"It limits your ability to process everything else that's going on. And if you're under stress, that can all be exacerbated," Dr. Falb says.

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That's why she is encouraging patience and kindness when communicating with someone new.

"We're all human beings, and how we're being received is going to contribute to our stress level (and) our ease of expressing ourselves whether we're fluent in the language or not," Dr. Falb says.

The Literacy Center of West Michigan is looking for more volunteer tutors to join their organization. 

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