Books teach adults to read, find jobs

For more than two decades, Betsy Wolff provided health and social services outreach to hundreds of the state's impoverished residents. Now, the Latta native and Columbia resident has founded a new venture, Readable & Relevant Press, to help address literacy problems among job seekers.

As a central part of her new mission, Wolff has written a series of books with two engaging characters, Henry Perry and his dog, Buddy, to help emerging readers develop skills for career and life. Buddy is based on Wolff's own dog, Annie, a mixed breed "Carolina dog."

The State talked to Wolff about her new career and her new series, aimed at those on the 4th and 5th grade reading level:

Why did you decide to embark on this new venture?

"For many many years, I have worked with less-advantaged folks in rural counties. I've worked in Dillon County, in Clarendon County, in Allendale a lot and done a lot of outreach providing basic information on immunization, prenatal care, oral health and, the last few years, on job readiness.

"I've always enjoyed interacting with and reaching out to these people, but I have always felt like they are a little bit of a forgotten group and there is not a focused outreach with materials that are really appropriate for their reading level.

"These are people who, for whatever reason, cannot fill out a job application or read directions in a job setting, or even read a prescription bottle and understand what they do with what's inside."

Are the books for all ages?

"The books are really focused on young adults, and I count that as starting about age 16 on up to anybody who is grown up and would like to improve their reading."

Why Henry? Why the dog?

"I knew what I had been handing out all these years, and sometimes it was appropriate and sometimes it was too complicated for people to read. When I started to really talk to people and research ... I had a strong opinion that these people deserved more than Xeroxed fliers and brochures. They deserved and would respond to something that looked like someone had gone to the trouble of making it attractive and colorful and really appropriate for their sort of cultural beliefs.

"And I hope this is a kind of actual literature instead of just being hard information. It's a blend of hard information and literature that maybe will inspire someone to say, 'Gosh, I read a book. I think I need to read another book."

What are some of the specifics you provide in the books?

"It's amazing that a lot of people haven't had the opportunity to get the basics. In "Henry Perry Gets a Job," we review things like how to shake hands, how to look at an interviewer, look in his face and his eyes, how to make sure when you arrive you are prepared with either your driver's license or your state ID, that you've got a Social Security card and that you have got a resume.

"We cover little things: tuck your shirt in, don't wear a baseball cap. I had a wonderful group of gentlemen in their 50s and 60s who were learning to read ... (They) reviewed the book for me, and they made recommendations of what rang true to them and what didn't feel appropriate for the new reading audience. And they said, you've got to put in: Wear a belt, don't let your pants sag, don't wear a hat in the house.

"I hope people will like Henry Perry and his thoughts and struggles. I think a lot of people really love dogs. I think having Henry Perry have an important pet that he can have by his side on his journey makes the book a little more interesting."

What about your own background?

"Growing up, I went to Latta High School, seven miles from Dillon. I went to school with all kinds of people and really benefited from getting to know and respect people who came from homes where nobody had graduated from high school and people who came from homes with traditional middle-class folks and to understand that everybody deserves information and encouragement.

"My daddy was a small-town doctor, and I used to go with him on house calls. And sometimes if it was appropriate, he would let me go in with him. So I have been in wonderful hospitable homes where the floor was dirt but the people were welcoming and glad to see the doctor there."