HARVIN COLUMN: Can you read the signs to get where you want to go in life?

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley meets with students and staff at Trident Literacy’s T.C. Drayton Center on Meeting Street. Pictured are (from left) Mary Ann Olwig, Stella Necker, Gail Green, Riley, Judianne Schmenk, DeAndra Smith, Sabrina Richards, LaDonna Simmons and Yaededa Clark. Smith and Simmons are recent students of the program.

Your airplane lands in China or Germany or France, and from the minute you get off the plane, nothing makes sense.

You may recognize letters, but you can’t make out any words. You can’t figure out how much a stick of gum costs. As you make your way to the rental car, some kind people may point you in the right direction, and a clerk will understand enough English to take your money.

But from the minute you drive out of the terminal, you are lost. You can’t read the language.

While travelers make plans for the problem, the dilemma is the same one faced daily by those who can’t read.

Even the simplest of acts like going to the grocery store is a problem. Basic food labels that tell of rice, beans and eggs are just letters on a package. A smart person learns the shape and color of the package, but won’t be able to read the sign telling them which one is on sale.

Applying for a job is worse. These days, every employment application has questions that require legal answers, and someone who can’t read won’t be able to answer without help. That’s enough to discourage job-seekers from higher-paying jobs that provide benefits.

There are so many things that require literacy in America: how to read a prescription, how to write and maintain a checkbook, knowing which bus to take.

And then there are the pleasures of stories about people in newspapers, books, magazines and online that are forever off limits.

But the good thing is that reading is one of the simplest of life skills to learn. Our brain learns these lessons more easily in childhood, but it is still hard-wired to learn meaningful symbols, and then to begin to string those symbols together into coherent ideas.

That’s why the work that Trident Literacy Association does is so important. Last week was National Family Literacy Week and the nonprofit held open houses at several of its facilities.

In addition to teaching adults how to read, the nonprofit organization helps adults without high school credentials increase their skills, earn career readiness certificates and learn how to use the computer so they can qualify for jobs.

According to the Trident Literacy Association, there are about 600,000 people in our area. About 60,000 of the adults over 25 do not have a high school credential, and some 20,000 have less than a ninth-grade education.

The costs of the problem are staggering. Low literacy rates translate into higher medical bills for everyone: MUSC foots the bill for $130 million in unfunded medical costs for people who don’t have insurance, either because they don’t have jobs, or don’t have jobs with medical benefits.

Social services add up to $292,000 per person over a lifetime in needed social programs. And 78 percent of the inmates in the Charleston County jail have low literacy skills.

Trident Literacy Association currently has about 2,000 students and operates on bare minimums. An adult student (over age 17) pays only $5 a month, and volunteer tutors help with the reading lessons and individual learning plans.

Not surprisingly, many of the students are women who have recognized that they need to learn to read or pass their GED to help their children.

Nationwide, studies show that it is the woman in a family who pushes her children on education, and to do that she needs the knowledge herself: first to read bedtime stories, then to help with homework.

Do you know someone who cannot read or read well enough to hold a good job? If you do, tell them to reach out for help. Reading is a path to a better future, and every person in South Carolina needs that.

Reach the Trident Literacy Association at 747-2223.

Reach Stephanie Harvin at 937-5557.