TODAY, THERESA Kellenbenz is reading this column. Until recently, this is something the 65-year-old great-grandmother could not do.
"I can read words now, books." Kellenbenz, a wisp of a woman, glows when she says this.
"I've read about 15 books. Not real high books, but I read them."
That would be a big enough accomplishment for anyone. But as nurturing grandmothers tend to do, Kellenbenz wanted her family to share in her success.
So, shortly after starting the literacy tutoring program last year at the Lutheran Settlement House in Fishtown, Kellenbenz encouraged her 46-year-old daughter, Dawn Marston, to join. And like mother, like daughter, Marston told her own 28-year-old daughter, Christine Conaway, to come, too.
"We do everything together," Conaway says. And that includes committing to turning around a multigenerational cycle of illiteracy.
Kellenbenz left school at 16, unable to read much. Her daughter dropped out in the eighth grade. Conaway, in the ninth. Marston and Conaway can read, but not at the levels needed to get their GEDs or better jobs, they said.
It's a reality a lot of Philadelphians live with. Almost one-quarter (20 percent) of Philadelphians 16 and older are unable to read, write or do math at an elementary-school level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. More than 50 percent of working-age adults in Philadelphia lack the literacy skills to compete in the labor market, according to the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Kellenbenz was sent to a school for children with learning difficulties. The memories of going to a "special" school are still raw.
"They called it a 'no-brain' school," Kellenbenz recalls, the sadness still heavy in her voice. "They called us 'out of brains,' 'retarded.' In there I didn't learn anything."
So she left and went to work, always careful to closely guard her secret. "I didn't want people to think I was a dummy," she says. Kellenbenz brought job applications home so family members could help her fill them out. She couldn't read the menus she handed to customers as a waitress, but she managed by coming up with her own shorthand. She memorized words she needed to know. "Cheesesteak was one," she said.
Her family kept her secret.
"We never told anyone," Marston says. "Until now."
"I just want people to know that no matter how old you are, you can always learn something," Kellenbenz says, looking over at her daughter and granddaughter.
Even as she yearned to learn to read, it was a difficult lesson for her to learn.
Todd Stregiel, the educational project adviser for the literacy program, recalled Kellenbenz pulling him aside one day.
" 'I don't know if they want to waste their time on me,' " he recalled her saying of the young student tutors from St. Joseph's University. " 'Maybe it's better if they work with someone younger.' "
Stregiel assured her that she was exactly whom they wanted to work with. "From that moment on, her whole attitude changed," Stregiel said. "I'm very proud of Terry."
Kellenbenz's daughter and granddaughter also noticed a change.
"There's this light within her that I've never seen," Conaway says.
Reading has opened up the world to her, Kellenbenz says.
"I like going out and being able to read the words around me, and not having to ask anybody else to help me." Kellenbenz also keeps copies of the covers of every book she reads: Diving Dolphins, Watching Whales and Dead Cool, her first and favorite book.
Last week, the Lutheran Settlement House gave Kellenbenz an award for being an outstanding student. Her daughter and granddaughter were at the ceremony.
"She showed me that she could do it," Marston said. "That we could all do it."
On Twitter: @NotesFromHel