Monthly Archives: December 2015

2015: A Momentous Year for Literacy Kansas City: A Letter from the Executive Director and a Photo Essay of the Year in Review

A Note from the Executive Director

As I reflect and look back on this last year, my question for you is, how much do you really know about what Literacy Kansas City is doing these days? So much has changed around here that if it’s been more than a year or so since you’ve visited us, you might think you’ve come to an entirely different organization!

The most exciting change brought by 2015 was our new Ticket to Read service delivery model. We absolutely transformed the way we reach and teach our students, and the best part of all? It’s working. Better than we ever dreamed.

Those of you who know me well know that in order to illustrate how well things have been going, my instinct would be to tell you the hard facts…

Things like:

  • The total number of students who participated in our Ticket to Read program alone in 2015 was 256!
  • 186 students sent their first email.
  • 64 students purchased their first computer or laptop.
  • 105 students completed an online form, like a job application.
  • 191 students participated in digital life skills classes and gained Internet skills.
  • 60 students got their first library card.
  • 164 visited a library.
  • 19 students wrote their first resume.
  • 37 students got a raise.
  • 49 students got a new job.
  • 76 helped a child with homework.
  • 110 students read to a child.
  • 68 attended a child’s school event.
  • 39 joined their child’s PTO/PTA.

One of the most challenging aspects of adult literacy instruction is encouraging students to persist in their attendance. Literacy Kansas City is making strides in this area, as well, as evidenced by student persistence and retention measures:

Students, instructors, and tutors have achieved over 7000 hours of instruction.

And, perhaps most remarkable of all, Term 3’s Ticket to Read program achieved an astounding 91% retention rate! Meaning more than 9 out of 10 students who started Term 3 finished Term 3 successfully. That is an unheard of statistic in adult literacy education practices.  

So, like I said, I could tell you all sorts of hard facts and type until my keyboard is worn and revolting about the things we know regarding our first year of instruction under this new model.

But right now, maybe it’s the time of year and I’m feeling extra sentimental. Maybe it’s all the unrest and political divisiveness happening in our country. Maybe it’s the violence and controversy around us. Maybe my two little boys are turning this momma into a softie.

Whatever it is, I don’t really want to talk about what we know. Instead, I’d like to talk about how it feels to be a part of Literacy KC. Every day, I come to work and see yet another example of the community we’ve been working toward, the feeling of inclusion, of safety, of belonging, that each staff member, each volunteer, each supporter is investing in and helping us to build. And it is through describing these things that I see each day that I hope you will also start to feel what I mean.

Throughout the last year, I’ve seen:

  • Students spending extra hours in the computer lab at Computer Happy Hour learning new skills- and this stuff isn’t even homework!
  • Students who have particularly bad days come here to get help because it’s a safe place full of people they trust, and they know at the very least they will get a smile and a place to rest their weary feet for a few minutes
  • Students, instructors, and tutors working together in classrooms- people from all walks of life whose paths may never have crossed otherwise- sitting close, shoulders touching, heads bent over a passage or book, writing, reading, and discovering together.
  • A big shot lawyer and a big shot pastor having lunch together to brainstorm ideas on how their congregation can help support the work we’re doing here.
  • Students becoming volunteers- spending extra hours at the office helping with projects because they, too, want to contribute and give back.
  • A group of volunteers, staff, and community members meeting to organize a system for students to get help with emergencies.
  • Partner sites excited to give us space, use of equipment, and the help of staff to support our programs for free, because they believe in what we’re doing.
  • Students continually asking after the well-being of staff members or volunteers who have run into health issues and are absent from work or class.
  • Instructors spontaneously working together with other instructors, staff, or volunteers, excited about yet another discovery.
  • Experts in the field of adult teaching offering time, training, and supplies for free to help us achieve the best approach to teaching possible.
  • Staff working beyond their normal hours to help other staff members with homework or special projects.
  • Students volunteering to read a creative piece or speak about their experiences at very public events, helping us allow students to become our spokespeople and public advocates for the work we do here.
  • Students making sure their friends are getting to class, picking each other up from home, even helping each other out with projects in their homes. In other words, our students are becoming friends and, some would say, even family.

I could go on and on. But because you may be ready to re-join your family’s holiday celebration or go indulge in another slice of pie or another glass of bubbly, I will stop there.

But I do want to share one last thing. I had the good fortune to hear a speech and take part in a workshop on cultural competency and inclusion given by Brigette Rouson, a long-time advocate and activist for social justice. In her speech, she quoted Dr. Cornell West who says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

And when we get down to it, isn’t that what we do here? I like to interpret our nonprofit work as justice work, as just, meaning it is making available the services and opportunities that everyone inherently deserves.

And hidden in all those examples of work and effort and learning I listed above is a shared experience, a sense of humanity, good will, justice, and recognition of our own inherent worth. In other words, everyone deserves this- a safe place to explore, to discover, to learn. Everyone.

At times like this, when things are crazy in the world and in our country, I like to think of that Fred Rogers quote. Fred Rogers, AKA Mr. Rogers. You know him- the one with the slippers, cardigan, and puppet friends who make up the most incredible neighborhood.

Anyhow, Mr. Rogers has talked about how his mother would always tell him in times of unrest, uncertainty, or violence: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

And that’s just it. That’s what this year has been like for me. I’m surrounded by the helpers: Instructors helping students. Supporters helping the organization. Experts helping our instruction. Tutors helping instructors. Staff helping each other. Students helping staff. Volunteers helping everyone. Students helping each other.

We all need help, and we’re all fortunate to be in a community that gives – and receives – help freely, without shame, without a sense of entitlement or charity. But because it’s right. And I think it’s an incredible- if somewhat unintentional- side effect of our new classroom and community model. And it’s because we work so hard to build a community here, to collaborate with students in the learning process, to create a place of shared experience, of team mentality, of “we’re all in this together, so let’s help each other out”, that our success is inevitable. And this coming year is one of opportunity, of growth, of accomplishment, of love.

So thank you. And congratulations to our students on such a wonderful achievement. Keep going. We’re here to help, and thank you for your help. And thank you for letting me be a part of it.

Gillian Helm, Executive Director and grateful Literacy KC groupie

The Year 2015 in Pictures



Kim Rogers, Sarah Bell, Emily Hane, Love Letters

Staff members Kim Rogers, Sarah Bell and Emily Hane enjoying self decorated cookies at Love Letters.

Price Horn, James Carlile, Deborah Roach, Suzie Kemper - UMB Winning Spelling Team

Literacy Kansas City’s 21st Annual Spelling Bee Winners – UMB – Price Horn, James Carlile, Deborah Roach, Suzie Kemper

Will (New VISTA), Rachel Henderson, Robert Day, Emily Hane and Carrie Coogan

Staff members take on a Day at the Zoo.

April Grant and mom, Zoo Day

Student April Grant and her mother at Literacy Kansas City’s Day at the Zoo

Patrice Gonzalez, Becky Holst, Dana Moriarty, Kim Rogers - Outreach Day 20150724

Former VISTA Patrice Gonzalez, Board member Dana Moriarty, Instructor Becky Holst and staff member Kim Rogers with a Little Free Library during Literacy Kansas City’s Student Outreach Day.

Midnight in Paris

Literacy Kansas City supporters enjoying the 2nd Annual Gourmet Dinner – Midnight in Paris.

Lynn O'Connell, Haley Box, Rachel Cash, Gourmet Dinner

Mary Jo Saviano, Board President Lynne O’Connell, staff members Haley Box and Rachel Cash enjoying a Midnight in Paris, Gourmet Dinner.

Dave Mullins, Charlie Vitale, Fred Lewis, Windell Lamb

Volunteers Dave Mullins and Charlie Vitale with students Windell Lamb and Fred Lewis at the Term 2 Student Celebration

Victoria Estes, Raymond Woodson, Student Celebration

Student Victoria Estes and guest with student Raymond Woodson at Term 2 Student Celebration,

Carrie and Peggy accepting check, UMB Big Bash

Former Literacy KC Executive Director, Carrie Coogan, and former student, Peggy Shannon, accept the UMB Big Bash award.

Bride and groom, Wedding

Brent and Ella Rogers saying their vows at their Love, Charity, Rock and Roll Wedding

Gillian Helm, Literacy for All Luncheon

Executive Director Gillian Helm at the Literacy for All Luncheon.

Will Orlowski, Shirley Lewis, Literacy for All Luncheon

VISTA Will Orlowski and student Shirley Lewis at the Literacy for All Luncheon.

Sherrian Robinson, Literacy for All Luncheon

Student Sherrian Robinson speaking at the Literacy for All Luncheon.

Charlotte Brown, Literacy for All Luncheon

Student Charlotte Brown preparing to arrive in style to the Literacy for All Luncheon. Special thanks to Pech Limousine for donating a Limousine for a couple of hours.

Sarah Bell and Elizabeth Nelson, TTR C2

Instructor Sarah Bell with student Elizabeth Nelson during a Term 3 class.

Henry Hurtado, Linda Marcusen, Maricruz Bazaldua, TTR C1

Students Henry Hurtado and Maricruz Bazaldua with tutor Linda Marcusen working hard during a Term 3 class.

Becky Holst and class, TTR A1

Instructor, Becky Holst (far left), and her Ticket to Read class

Henry Hurtado, New Computer, 11.6.15 2

Student Henry Hurtado enjoying his new computer.

Garrett Waters, Mary Thornton, Fred Lewis, Writers for Readers

Students Garrett Waters, Mary Thornton and Fred Lewis reading at the Inaugural Writers for Readers event.

Gillian Helm, Writers for Readers

Executive Director, Gillian Helm speaking at Writers for Readers.

Bol Wajak, Student Celebration 20151209

Student Bol Wajak accepting his certificate at Term 3 Student Celebration.



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Filed under AmeriCorps VISTA, Community Partners, Corporate Spelling Bee, For Students, For Tutors, For Volunteers, Fundraisers, In The News, Power of Reading, Programs & Services, Special Events, Student Spotlight

If You Could Read My Mind

Some think that adults in this country who lack literacy skills must be fine with it, that it somehow reflects a decision they made when they were young.  But if we took the time to listen and change our perspective, we’d likely hear something different:

“Yesterday, I went to the funeral for my friend’s mother. The service was beautiful. There was a booklet my friend said he put together, with photos of their family and what I guess were stories about them. I know my friend must have worked hard on the folder. At the end, they sang Amazing Grace from the hymn book. I wanted to sing, but I don’t know the words by heart. I hate not being able to read. But I don’t have anyone to call on for help, and I don’t want my friends to know. I feel like I’m going through life blindfolded.”books2birder420x600fc13t

“I’m an old guy, and I’ve learned over the years how to hide that I can’t read. I’m pretty good at it.  Sometimes, I’ll claim I left my glasses at home and ask my buddy to read the menu on the chalk board at the restaurant. Sometimes, if my wife can’t drive me somewhere, I make up an excuse not to go, because I’m worried I can’t read the signage well enough to get to a new place. Sometimes, I open up the paper at work and pretend to read while the other guys are talking about what’s in a sports page column. Sometimes, I’m so tired of pretending that I want to yell and hit something. But starting back to school now would be hopeless and humiliating. I’m going through life blindfolded.”

“This guy at work is really nice and really cute. We eat lunch together in the break room and discuss movies we’ve seen. We always like the same ones.  Today he asked me out to see a new film. It’s in Chinese. But he said not to worry, because it has subtitles. I told him no, because I don’t like foreign films. I know he didn’t believe me and thinks I’m just not into him. But I can’t tell him I can’t read. It’s too embarrassing. I’ve tried to learn on my own, but I just can’t do it. I don’t know why. I feel so sad, I might as well be going through life blindfolded.”14763324-magic-open-book-of-fantasy-stories--Stock-Photo-book-story-study

“My baby came home from school today, all excited and waving a piece of paper. He said it was a note to me from his teacher telling me how well he had done on a project. ‘Read it, Mama, read it now!’  I had to say I didn’t have time right now. His face fell. His Dad will read it to us when he gets home, but that painful moment is frozen in time for me. This has to stop. It’s breaking my heart. I have to learn to read. But how?  My English is not very good. The school system doesn’t have anything to help me. We can’t afford a private tutor.  It’s like I’m going through life blindfolded.”

Take time today to try and understand the challenges faced by the thousands of people in this metro area who are able, capable, and admirable, and who also are illiterate. Remember that very few choose to go through life blindfolded. Life does harsh and strange things to people. Literacy KC works hard to teach students how to remove their blindfolds and experience the world the rest of us sometimes take for granted.        

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Filed under For Students, For Tutors, For Volunteers, Understanding the Need

What is it Like to Dedicate a Year of Your Life to Literacy?

In this video interview, our AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, Lindsey Clark and Will Orlowski, share their experience as Volunteers In Service To America devoted to helping, organizing, writing, photographing, listening, sharing, being passionate about our students, and building the capacity of Literacy Kansas City. Please take a few minutes to watch and leave comments. Your encouragement will be greatly appreciated!






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Filed under AmeriCorps VISTA, Community Partners, For Students, For Tutors, For Volunteers, Understanding the Need

Relax & Enjoy That Holiday Novel! It’s Helping You Be a Nicer Person

If you read Madame Bovary in high school, you might have thought, what’s wrong with this silly woman? If you dared to reread the same novel later in life, your reflections may well have been quite different about the female protagonist struggling to lead an independent life within a male-dominated society.

This is what reading fiction can do for us, experts say. Reading a novel as opposed to a factual non-fiction work allows us to see inside the mind and life of another person, and in so doing, find insight into our own and the lives of others. A 2013 study found that “empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story.” Scientists also stated: “It has been suggested that people who read a lot of fiction become more empathetic, because fiction is a simulation of social experiences, in which people practice and enhance their interpersonal skills.”

Another 2013 study looked at the ability to identify emotions via facial cues. One group read literary fiction and the other popular fiction. Those who read literary fiction – like Madame Bovary and All the Light We Cannot See – scored higher than the group reading books like Gone Girl. The conclusion was that reading about more complex characters possibly helps us to be more understanding about the emotions of real people around us.

We certainly think our Board of Directors volunteers are a group of empathetic individuals! Most of them are avid readers and especially enjoy reading fiction. One member said fiction was preferred because of the “thought-provoking topics I don’t often get from nonfiction.” Another likes fiction due to “entertainment, descriptions of locations and types of people, plus discussions of ideas and culture.” “Insight into the human condition” was still another benefit from reading fiction cited.

We also asked our Board which fiction titles they recommend as “musts” for adult readers. Following is their Top 12 List. Happy Holiday Reading!

The Great Gatsby

As I Lay Dying

Lucky Jim

The Catcher in the Rye

A Moveable Feast

Moby Dick

Their Eyes Were Watching God

One-Hundred Years of Solitude

Scarlet Letter

The Old Man and the Sea

Slaughterhouse Five

Grapes of Wrath



Filed under For Tutors, For Volunteers, Uncategorized