Thousands of people learned how to read and write thanks to the months-long efforts of Seventh-day Adventist Church, its church member volunteers in El Salvador and Hope for Humanity.

More than 2,500 held their literacy completion certificates high overhead during a special celebration held recently in Don Bosco Auditorium in Soyapango, San Salvador, El Salvador.

National Literacy Coordinator for the Ministry of Education in El Salvador Angélica Paniagua, applauded the efforts of the Adventist Church for its partnership and commitment in holding literacy courses throughout hundreds of communities across the Central American country.

“I have no words to express our gratitude on behalf of the Ministry of Education in El Salvador to Hope for Humanity and the [Adventist] church because they are our main partner in the process of eradicating illiteracy in the country,” said Paniagua.

“Thanks to your help, the government’s partnership and other institutions, we have been able to lower the illiteracy rate from 17 percent to 13 percent earlier in the year,” said Paniagua.

The day’s celebration was a time to thank the hundreds of volunteers who commit to teaching others how to read week after week, as the United Nations observes the International Volunteer Day Dec. 5 every year.

During his keynote address, Maitland DiPinto of the North American Division’s Hope for Humanity, was thrilled to see the fruits of the work of so many volunteers.

“I am so impressed with the commitment of volunteers who invest more than two hours every day, four times per week, eight months every year and then begin the cycle again the following year to help transform lives,” said DiPinto. “This is not by chance, this is a real commitment.”

“Volunteers have not only been a blessing to people in their classes, but they themselves have grown and developed their leadership skills, as well as experienced satisfaction and joy it brings to change the lives of many people,” explained DiPinto.

Literacy is a transforming process of life, emphasized DiPinto. “The person who learns how to read and write has a new vision in life, a new perspective.”

Wally Amundson, Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) director for Inter-America, who has been overseeing literacy programs throughout the Inter-American Division (IAD) territory in Mexico, Central America, Dominican Republic and Haiti, said that it was the largest group of persons graduated in a single event held throughout the church in Inter-America.

“We are excited because these literacy circles in different communities in El Salvador are like a springboard to merge people into the educational system helping them earn a high school diploma and pursue a national exam,” explained Amundson.

More than 6,000 persons have been certified through more than 650 literacy circles led by more than 520 volunteers, according to Juan Pablo Ventura, ADRA El Salvador director.

“The significant accomplishment of the program is the partnership of ADRA El Salvador and the church,” said Ventura. “It’s been challenging to link both and let the community know that ADRA is not only an agency that comes to the aid when disaster comes, but one that can be seen as an organization that can enable the church in the fulfillment of its social responsibility,” he explained.

The Ministry of Education in El Salvador is committed to provide materials, training and accrediting persons for the literacy projects, according to Ventura.

Pastor Abel Pacheco, president of the church in El Salvador, is happy to see that the church has brought programs of this type to the community for the first time.

“This type of service to the community has allowed us to establish ties and be known to communities, government agencies and private entities, as a people who care for their fellowman,” said Pastor Pacheco.

Among those who graduated from the literacy program was Fermin Requeno, mayor of the San Juan de la Reyna Municipal district in the state of San Miguel. “Knowing how to read and write has changed my life,” said Requeno. Requeno is now among the main promoters of education in his community.

Graduate María Elena González, 70, works at a laundry service in a medical center in the Apopa municipal district and was among a group of 22 people who attended the literacy circle there.

“My family was so poor and I wasn’t able to get an education,” said González. “I felt so bad every time I went to the bank to cash my check because I didn’t know how to write my name, so I decided to make an effort and learn how to read and write.”

Carlos Oswaldo Arevalo, 32, who works at a propane gas distributing company, was also among those who graduated. Arevalo only finished first grade and always had difficulty finding a job. “I was never able to get a better paying job much less a professional one,” said Arevalo. “My coworkers would laugh at me and make me feel bad. Now no one laughs at me and my boss trusts that I can do all of his paperwork just like he does.”

Each graduate was awarded a brand new Bible.

Eradicating illiteracy throughout the territory is still very present in the minds of church leaders, said Amundson.

Although statistics vary from country to country, said Amundson, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras have seen the illiteracy index go down significantly. “We want to explore all the possibilities to reach the illiterate population within the church as well as in the community,” he added.

To date, Hope for Humanity has funded literacy programs in nine countries in the IAD. Among the 3.6 million IAD church membership, there are estimates of several hundreds of thousands of church members who do not know how to read or write.

“Literacy is a challenge in the Adventist Church in Inter-America and other parts of the world,” said DiPinto. “We say that we are people of the Word, but there are millions of church members world-wide who do not know how to read their Bibles or their Sabbath school lessons.”

Literacy is something that the church must talk about it, DiPinto continued. “It is about changing the lives of people.” Illiteracy is “not easy to see because people hide it and we must sensitize our church members so that they can become a blessing to those in the church and the community who cannot read or write.”

That is exactly why Hope for Humanity and the church have been successful, said Amundson. “Hope for Humanity is the catalyst that helps this literacy program improve and expand.”

“Of course literacy is challenging in Inter-America and elsewhere around the world, but we are doing something about it,” added Amundson.

IAD wants to implement more programs based in the church, said Amundson. “These literacy programs which are led by the initiative and participation of church members make the program successful because there is an infrastructure available to bring together various ministries of the church to form groups of volunteers.”

Pastor Pacheco said the church in El Salvador had set a goal for 2014 to turn every one of its 930 Adventist Churches into a literacy circle for their communities.

So far literacy circles in El Salvador have 175 facilitators, who meet with their students in homes and churches, five regional coordinators and one national coordinator.

Hope for Humanity is the name designated by the North American Division for the annual ingathering programs throughout its churches. The initiative funds literacy programs in many countries around the world including India. Since the year 2000, more than 100,000 people have learned how to read and write thanks to more than 10,000 volunteers.

Hope For Humanity is the new face of one of the longest and most effective humanitarian ministries in the history of Adventism, what used to be called “Harvest Ingathering.” For more than a century, Seventh-day Adventists have reached out to their communities to share in the support of the compassionate ministry of Jesus.