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Awards & Honors: 2001 National Humanities Medalist

Sharon Darling

Sharon Darling never intended to run a nationwide family literacy organization. She only meant to teach adults to read in a Kentucky church basement while their children were occupied in the nursery. “They were so fearful, at first, that someone would find out, so ashamed. But soon, four adults became eight . . . then more and more just kept on coming,” says Darling. In 1986, Darling had an opportunity to look at the literacy challenges facing Appalachia. “That was the birth of the family literacy program,” she says. Today, four thousand family literacy programs inspired by Darling are spread across every state in America.

As president of the National Center for Family Literacy, Darling advises and educates governors, state and national policy-makers, businesses, and foundations. She serves on the boards of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, the National Coalition for Literacy, and the New School for Social Research. She has won the Woman of Distinction Award, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, and the Charles A. Dana Award for Pioneering Achievement in Education. Her message is that equitable educational opportunities should be available for all families, regardless of race, creed, geography, or social status. To achieve that goal, Darling and her team continue to read and work with different generations within families. “It’s what gets me up in the morning,” says Darling.

“I discovered early on that if we didn’t look at the whole picture, we weren’t going to be successful,” Darling explains. “We can’t keep pretending we can ‘fix’ a kid in a school or just get mom a new, minimum-wage job. But, we really can work with whole families and sustain changes in order to help current and future generations have a better quality of life.”

Darling believes that literacy is a basic human right. She has seen the ability to read change people’s lives: “I met a woman in North Carolina, in 1988, when I was first getting started. She was so shy. Her hair hung in her face. A teacher had coaxed her into coming. Well, a visiting poet’s work really turned her on. She discovered she had the ability to write poetry pent up inside of her. This woman scored a perfect score on her GED literature test. She graduated from college with honors . . . and she’d never even dreamt of setting foot on a college campus! Many times, creativity that we can unleash will help solve some of the other problems in people’s lives.”

Darling also believes that literacy can change patterns that have been embedded in families for generations. In Darling’s words, “Literacy empowers people to be the parents they deserve to be. It’s wonderful to see parents come back to school--to smell the smells of the place where they failed--and succeed, this time. You watch them hold themselves differently. Then, they start asking what they can do for their children.”

By LFL