Cecil Wells Jr. had accomplished many things in life, but he was unable to really read. When he was in his early 40s, Wells made a call to the Eastside Literacy Council, which is now part of Hopelink, one of 13 agencies supported by The Seattle Times' annual Fund For The Needy drive.

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Cecil Wells Jr. used to write the word out, over and over and over again.

R-E-A-D

R-E-A-D

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It was a word that offered tremendous potential. And it was a reminder of his shortcomings. Because this hardworking Kirkland man had accomplished many things in life, but he was unable to really read.

“I lived in this box,” Wells recalled. “You have few words, few things you can say, because you don’t want to embarrass yourself.”

When he was in his early 40s, Wells made a call to the Eastside Literacy Council, which is now part of Hopelink. One of 13 agencies supported by The Seattle Times’ annual Fund For The Needy drive, Hopelink offers dozens of services for those in need, each with the aim leading people toward self-sufficiency.

For Wells, now 56, it was the beginning of a new life.

Finally learning to read on an adult level, he said, offered “a reward greater than you’d ever imagine.”

An estimated 42 million American adults can’t read, but it is a problem you don’t see. People who are illiterate feel judged — and perhaps, at times, they are. They are labeled: Weak. Lazy. Dumb. They feel shame.

For a long time, Wells didn’t even tell his wife.

“He hid it very, very well,” said Leslie Wells, a registered nurse.

Wells said he was one of those kids who slipped through the cracks. Raised by his grandmother in Arizona, he began working, at a very young age, “from the time I got home from school to the time it got dark,” he said. It helped the family scrape by.

Back then, dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (with which Wells has been diagnosed) weren’t readily recognized by teachers. There were no special-education classes for those needing extra help.

Wells simply did his best and got passed onto the next grade.

“I tried — God knows I tried,” he said. “I would do anything for extra credit.” Several teachers took an interest in him and helped him make it through. Wells even went on to play football at a community college, where he was tutored along with others on the team, but did not complete a degree.

He’s always had a job — he’s now a housekeeping supervisor at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center, which recently gave him an award for “always going the extra smile.” And with Leslie he’s raised two children: a son who’s a college freshman and a daughter in eighth grade.

To those who’ve never struggled with reading, it is a mystery: How do you live a normal life when practically everything requires it?

Wells managed by piecing together meaning from the words he could figure out here and there — he calls it being a “piece reader.” He was skilled at memorization. “I would work on things till I couldn’t see,” he said. He could forgo instructions because he was good with his hands.

“I learned the things I needed to know to survive,” he said. “It was determination.”

Imagine it like this: You are in a foreign country and you know a few basic words. You stumble along. And much of the time, you feel lost.

Being unable to read, Wells explains, means working harder at things most people take for granted. It means walking up and down every grocery-store aisle searching for that certain kind of rice because you can’t read the signs overhead.

It means bringing job applications home, rather than having to fill them out in front of someone else.

It means going to a restaurant and guessing at what might be on the menu.

It means pretending you understand your birthday cards — and then later on, secretly and painstakingly, trying to sound out the words and figure out what your loved ones were trying to tell you.

“There are so many ways to escape to get by,” Wells said.

Wells’ first literacy tutor, Kay Smith, a retired piano teacher, remembers him fondly.

“He was the most patient, dedicated student,” she said. “He was the apple of my eye.”

His goal, like many who enroll in literacy classes, was to read to his children.

It was not easy, but Wells was determined. Turns out that once Smith taught him phonics, he was off and running.

Today, “not a day goes by that I don’t read,” he said. Over the years he has volunteered at Hopelink and says he uses his experience to help the men and women he supervises at work, many of whom are learning English as a second language. Now he’s taking computer classes and hopes one day to become a tutor himself.

“There’s a whole lot of things that go on, and I used to have to keep it all in my head,” he said. “Now I can keep it on paper.”

But his first task after spending time under Smith’s tutelage was to find out what he had been missing.

One afternoon, Wells dug out a wooden box he had been carrying around since he built it in high school. Inside was a zip-top baggie, and inside that was a thick stack of greeting cards, held together with a rubber band.

One by one, he pulled out the cards and set about reading every last word.

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com