By Lauren Fitch Kokomo Tribune
---- — One woman was able to pass a driving test, get a job and then regain custody of her daughter. Another person went on to enroll at Ivy Tech Community College, and countless others have benefited from the work of the Literacy Coalition.
The Howard County nonprofit, which started in 1988, now serves about 300 people a year. The Literacy Coalition offers tutoring for people 16 and older who are not in school and are preparing to take the High School Equivalency Assessment, teaches people to read and helps adults trying to learn English.
The work is life-changing, for volunteers as well as students, said executive director Bob Stephenson.
“When you see the success of these people and how it changes them, it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been associated with,” he said. “I’d say the majority of our GED recipients go on to some kind of additional training, which they never had the confidence for before or it wasn’t an option. When you see them come to that realization [that they can pass the test], it’s powerful.”
About 10 percent of Indiana’s adult population does not have high school credentials, and 1 percent does not speak English well or at all, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Stephenson estimates Howard County’s illiteracy rate matched the national average, which is 14 to 15 percent.
“These are people who have sat in classrooms, and that method didn’t work for them, so we try to make it individualized and flexible,” Stephenson said. “The beauty of the program is, if you come in with a certain need, we’ll figure out a way to get you there.”
Five years ago, Penny Irwin arrived at the Literacy Coalition wanting to help meet some of those needs. She didn’t expect to benefit as well.
“You come in here thinking you’re going to help someone else, not thinking you need help,” said Irwin, who works full time at RE/MAX Realty One and spends a couple of hours each week tutoring at the coalition. “It gives you such a sense of satisfaction. It’s so unbelievably rewarding. The people you deal with want and desire to have a better life. They’re looking for help, and you get involved in their dreams.”
Potential students who come to the Literacy Coalition start with an informal interview, so staff members can get to know what type of assistance they need. They take a computer assessment to identify their strengths and weaknesses and then are paired with a tutor who can help them with specific skills.
Tutoring sessions are set around the individual’s schedule and continue until the student has met the desired educational goals. About 30 volunteers and two paid employees keep the coalition running.
Fifty percent of the Literacy Coalition’s funding comes from United Way of Howard County, and the rest is generated through fundraisers and donations. The coalition’s biggest fundraiser of the year, a Dancing With The Stars event, is coming up in March.
Irwin signed up to volunteer at the Literacy Coalition thinking she would be a reading tutor. When she found out there was a need for math tutors to help people prepare for that segment of the High School Equivalency Assessment, she switched to that role because math is one of her strengths.
“I think there are a whole lot of people in our community who are good at things they don’t know there is a need for at the Literacy Coalition,” Irwin said. “People have abilities they have not tapped into yet. I can’t think of anybody I know who wouldn’t be a good volunteer. … I’m telling you, if I can do it, anybody can.”
Prompted by a belief in the importance of sharing God-given abilities, Irwin has been involved with a variety of nonprofits and philanthropic efforts over the years. She said personal interaction with students at the Literacy Coalition makes the tutoring especially rewarding.
When the economy slowed and the job market became more competitive, more people sought GEDs and to improve other skills, Stephenson said, and the Literacy Coalition saw an increase in demand.
Improving literacy is a way to make a lasting impact in someone’s life, Stephenson said, and all a volunteer needs is the desire to help in order to be successful at the coalition.
“Education is a core issue. … This is something that changes a life,” he said. “It’s being part of something bigger than yourself. You know it matters and that you’ve helped someone.”
Get involved What: Literacy Coalition of Howard County Mission: To meet an unfilled need in the community of teaching adult non-readers to read through one-on-one tutoring. The program creates an opportunity for self-improvement for individuals who cannot fit into other educational programs because of family responsibilities, job commitments or personal limitations. Volunteer opportunities: Tutor in reading, writing, math, science, social studies and English-speaking; plan events; raise money and awareness; or sit on the board of directors. Tutors complete a brief orientation and then are given guidance on best practices as they tutor. For more information: Call 765-450-8532, visit www.literacycoalition.com or stop by the Literacy Coalition, 107 W. Mulberry St., Kokomo, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.