Reading lays the foundation for everything we do, and I mean everything.

The reality is that without being able to read or comprehend, the quality of life folds like a deck of first-grade vocabulary cards.

I'm not just saying this because I read and write for a living. (Shout-out to my pragmatic mother who instilled a love of books in me by designating the library as our second home - a free and easy form of entertainment.)

Seriously, though, can you imagine being unable to fill out a job application because you can't understand it? Not voting because you can't read the ballot? Or worse yet, ignoring your children's homework pleas because you can't read well enough to help them?

And if you can't help your own kids, odds are they won't be able to help their children.

It's a frightening prospect, but in Philadelphia, not being able to read is a lot more common than we'd like to believe. Sadly, 550,000 adults do not have the literacy skills to apply for a job, Mayor Nutter said last week.

"Philadelphia is in a crisis," the mayor said before announcing his intention, along with the Mayor's Commission on Literacy, to make Philly one of the most literate cities in the nation by 2016. For the first time in the city's history, Nutter plans to pump $1 million into adult literacy programs.

The money will go to support programs like the Center for Literacy, the nation's largest nonprofit literacy provider, with locations all over the city. Since 1968, CFL has helped tens of thousands of adults through all kinds of literacy programs, from reading to work skills.

It was CFL that provided Anita Caleb a safe haven to raise her hand.

Going through school, you probably knew plenty of students like Caleb. On second thought, maybe you didn't.

Caleb was one of the invisible ones. She'd sit in the middle of the classroom, head down, never saying a word, never raising her hand.

In typical public school fashion, she'd get passed from grade to grade making C's and D's.

Problem was, she could barely read.

Advancement blocked

"I almost thought I had a mental block, that I couldn't learn," said Caleb, who figured that out of her five sisters - graduates of Villanova and Hahnemann School of Nursing among them - she was the dumb one.

Pregnant at 15, Caleb decided, what's the use? She dropped out of Overbrook High School before attending a single class.

In the years since, Caleb worked physical jobs that didn't necessarily require high reading proficiency. But she knew career mobility was limited without her GED.

At 49, Caleb enrolled at the Center for Literacy in July. She's making good progress, reading at the fifth-grade level with the goal of "getting her to the ninth- or 10th-grade level and the advanced class [for GED prep] by next month," teacher Mark Edmonds says.

That's a lofty goal, but for Caleb, it's achievable, her teacher says. "Anita's determination and drive is very strong."

As JoAnn Weinberger, the center's executive director, shows me around its new Old City headquarters, I realized that literacy takes on many definitions for many people. For Caleb, it's reading and comprehending on a high school level. For a senior citizen, it may be being able to read prescription instructions. For an immigrant, it could be simply being able to master English as a second language.

"Literacy is not in a vacuum," Weinberger says. "It's a part of other things."

Attrition can be a problem for adults dealing with the pressures of everyday life, but Weinberger says a jobs component helps provide the incentive for them to stick with it. Right now, she says, the center is in desperate need of volunteer tutors.

"Reading saved me," says Don Thomas, 32, a CFL tutor, who says he wants to pass on his love of literacy to others. "I probably get more out of it than they do."

In the classroom now, Caleb is a different student. You can see her, all right.

You can't shut her up.

"There's no shame in my game," says Caleb, who spoke at the center's open house last week.

Caleb is raising her hand - for herself as well as the invisible ones like she was, who suffer in silence.

For more information or to volunteer, call 215-474-1235 or www.centerforliteracy.org
Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com