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The 30 Year History of Literacy KC

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Literacy KC began as a dream and grew out of a passion to help people.  In 1985, a group of volunteers led by Catherine Matthews perceived a need and created a tiny organization to provide literacy tutoring for adults.  They had become aware of several adults that struggled with literacy skills and felt that there was an answer to help them gain new skills and improve on the limited skills that they had.  With a handful of students, Catherine embarked on a new journey by negotiating the use of a portion of the basement of the Country Club Congregational Church located at 205 West 65th Street, Kansas City, Missouri. She identified several individuals willing to volunteer their time and affiliated with the National Laubach Literacy Council to start a literacy tutoring program for adults.  The affiliation with Laubach provided the organization access to curriculum and materials.  The program was first called Kansas City Laubach Literacy Council.

BENCHMARKS:

1994: 1st Annual Corporate Spelling Bee. The Bee, which remains a significant source of fundraising for Literacy KC, brings teams from corporations in the KC area together to compete in a live spelling bee.  Corporations pay an entry fee and many bring “cheer squads” to compete for the spirit award.  During the Bee, silent and live auctions are held.

1996: For several years prior, the program was operated with an all-volunteer staff. The first Executive Director was hired, as well as a full-time Program Coordinator.

2000: The Literacy Works program was established. In this program, Literacy KC worked directly with corporations to place literacy tutoring skills programs on site at each corporation.  The rationale for the program was that increased literacy skills could increase productivity and reduce turnover for the company.  The strongest partnership was with Truman Hospital.  However, there were two factors that led to the eventual discontinuation of the program: first, many people were reluctant to come to this “volunteer” tutoring program at their place of work because of the stigma associated with an inability to read.  Second, the hospital eventually revised their hiring practices to require a high school diploma and evidence of ability to read, which nearly eliminated the potential student base on site.  The program continued until approximately 2007.

2006: Office relocated to 211 W. Armour Boulevard. It is significant to note that at the time of the move, the organization was paying $1,000 per month in rent to the church and the new monthly expense would be approximately $5,000.  The board approved the move based on information that $50,000 had been raised to support the move.  However, all of the needed financing was not actually available to Literacy KC and the increased expenditure quickly began to prove a challenge. By the end of 2006, the board was called on to make a cash infusion to make payroll.

2008: Near demise. In the summer, Interim Director Cliff Schiappa and Board President Mark Schweizer called a meeting to discuss the current standing of the organization.  In the year prior, board members had pitched in financially in order to keep the doors open and to be able to continue paying staff.  The Bee, although successful in its own right, was not enough to fund the programs and other funding was not coming in as anticipated. As there was no apparent “relief” in sight at that time, the discussion of possibly closing the doors of Literacy KC ensued.  A handful of board members were almost ready to do so, however there was not enough agreement to go ahead with this drastic measure.

Earlier that year, Interim Director Cliff Schiappa had crafted a grant proposal for the Human Foundation.  It was shortly after the above mentioned meeting that it was learned the organization was a finalist for this potential $100,000 grant.  In the end, Literacy KC did not win the overall grant but as one of the three organizations among the finalists, received $10,000.  This money was enough of a “shot in the arm” to keep the board motivated to move forward.

Fall 2008-2011: Staff was realigned to the following: Executive Director, Full-time Program Manager, Open Doors Coordinator, Part-time Tutor Trainer, Part-time Volunteer Coordinator, Operations Manager, Marketing/Communications Specialist [Note: titles may not be exact.]  The first Open Doors grant was developed and the program was funded.

2010: Metropolitan Community College – Penn Valley and a trial student tutoring program began on campus with the college providing the space and Literacy KC providing a classroom instructor and volunteer tutors.

Fall 2011: Formal start of the GEARS program at MCC-Penn Valley. Gillian Ford was hired as the GEARS Coordinator.  During that year, the student identification process was honed and the classroom/tutoring process was fine tuned. Finances remained an issue and board members again infused personal money at the end of the year to ensure bills, payrolls and holiday bonuses were paid.  During the strategic planning process, the board discussed the organization’s significant financial needs, the large number of adults needing the organization’s services, and the unwanted tag that our organization was the “best kept secret in Kansas City.”

2012: New Executive Director Carrie Coogan was hired & Gillian Ford Helm became Director of Programs. During the next year and a half (among many other changes), the organization’s accounting was contracted to Support KC, the lease was renegotiated, and employee health insurance bid out. Carrie and Gillian together reorganized every aspect of Literacy KC’s operations. Through research into adult literacy and reading acquisition, coupled with the success of the GEARS classroom-based program and in-depth analysis on the shortcomings of the one-to-one model, it was determined that a program overhaul was necessary in the evolution of Literacy KC programming if the organization wanted to truly increase numbers served, improve student progress, prove effectiveness, and affect change in our community.

A significant multi-year grant was won from the William T. Kemper Foundation that was the vote of confidence needed in order to leverage dollars from other funding sources in support of the program changes. The next two years brought research, a thoughtful education of Literacy KC supporters on the coming changes, internal administrative improvements, and an infusion of energy and community support into the renewed Literacy KC.

2013: Focus began to zero in on data, outcomes, and program effectiveness. A data consolidation project migrated all data into a single database and allowed valid recording and reporting. The beginning of the Literacy KC VISTA program (through CNCS) supported internal stability and capacity building through the addition of full-time cost-effective staff members.

2014: Literacy KC launched The Impact Initiative, a communications and identity effort to do a number of things: First, the continued diversification of student programming; second, to raise awareness about adult literacy and the visibility of Literacy KC; third, to work with community partners to leverage resources and broaden reach; fourth, to continue to build a strong infrastructure; and finally, to work with our constituents toward a paradigm shift away from one-to-one tutoring toward a classroom-based, instructor-led, tutor-supported, and community-based model called Ticket to Read. 2014 also saw the launch of the Let’s Read Family Reading Program and a major investment from United Way in the form of a substantial multi-year grant.

2015: Launch of the Ticket to Read program. It gave tutors and students a peer group, reinforcing the benefits of social and peer-to-peer learning; it provided relevant, dynamic, and appropriate curriculum; students access academically and geographically appropriate classes; and achieved strong outcomes through trackable metrics.

The first Fund Development Manager was hired, and this investment brought exponentially valuable returns. Literacy KC won the UMB Big Bash award, along with our second multi-year William T. Kemper investment. Partnerships included the Kansas City Public Library, Mid-Continent Public Library, Kansas City Parks & Recreation, Kansas City Public Schools, & more. We also became founding members of the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Coalition, and launched Career Online High School program, a nationally unique partnership with Mid-Continent Public Library and Kansas City Public Library that offers students the convenience of an online platform to earn a fully accredited high school diploma with an attached career certificate.

To mark the organization’s complete transformation and herald in the new era of Literacy Kansas City, the organization began a re-branding process, which also coincided with the 30th year of incorporation of the original Literacy Kansas City.

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On April 28,2016, the new Literacy KC brand was revealed.

2016: At the 2016 Spelling Bee, the new and improved Literacy KC was revealed. The new logo highlights both the different facets of literacy – reading, writing, math, and digital skills – while representing the diverse community that plays a crucial role in building a legacy of literacy in our community and changing lives beyond words. The open doors invite you in as a student or supporter, and the books represent the boundless information and opportunities available through literacy.

To get involved with Literacy KC as we continue to build on our history, visit literacykc.org or call (816)333-9332.

*This is not meant to be an exhaustive, all-inclusive history of the organization, but rather an overview of some of the major events.*
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