Readying Arkansas for a lifetime of literacy

AmeriCorps was founded in 1993 to provide opportunities for Americans of all ages and backgrounds to serve their communities. Programs include AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps VISTA, National Civilian Community Corps, FEMA Corps, and Senior Corps. The mission of AmeriCorps is to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering.

October 1, ALA began our 19th year as an AmeriCorps program. Arkansas Reads has been providing members to literacy councils to tutor, train, and recruit students and tutors to their programs. For many councils, their members have allowed the council to keep the door open. In total, approximately 620 members have served in the Arkansas Reads program.

This year, 20 members will serve at Literacy Action of Central Arkansas (Little Rock and Conway), Ozark Literacy Council (Fayetteville), Literacy Council of Western Arkansas (Fort Smith), River Valley Adult Learning Alliance (Dardanelle), Literacy Council of Bowie & Miller Counties (Texarkana), and the Literacy Council of Garland County (Hot Springs).

Belinda Sanders, ALA Program Director, has directed the program for the last 13 years. Recently, Belinda shared her thoughts on the Arkansas Reads Program: “The last 13 years has been a rewarding experience in a number of ways. The sheer fact that we have had some really awesome AmeriCorps members, whom I have had the opportunity to watch grow and flourish, is worth more than gold to me! Another reason is that I have gotten to see lives changed, communities made better and “helping your neighbor” by any means necessary really being carried out. Through the combined efforts of our local literacy councils and AmeriCorps members, the needs of the students they serve goes way beyond the tutoring they are receiving.”

Our site supervisors, typically a staff person at each council, provide oversight and mentorship to their members. They train them in the areas of adult tutoring, outreach, training, and life skills. Providing members with skills and knowledge to use in their future education and career. What has been exciting for ALA is when a member has completed their term with Arkansas Reads and moved on to become literacy council staff, in most cases, the Executive Director.

We are thankful to EngageAR, our funding partner, for their continued support of the Arkansas Reads program. Together, we are helping community based literacy councils, around the state, provide the necessary help they need to serve adult learners in their communities.

2019 AmeriCorps Member Training

I just returned from an AmeriCorps conference in Little Rock sponsored by Arkansas Reads-Adult Learning Alliance (ALA). The conference lasted two days, packed with information.  The first session, presented by ALA leaders, helped us get to know one another, and then got right on with information we need, some we already knew, and some new directives. We focused on program measures, data collection, and getting things done.  All completed by lunchtime.

After lunch, we enjoyed a presentation on soft skills by Kim Freeman.  Many of these were things we all knew, but had not considered as job skills.  They included such things as punctuality, personal hygiene, courtesy, consideration of our co-workers, respect toward our supervisors, and loyalty to our employers.  These were all considered skills to help one get a job, and skills needed to retain a job once they are hired. This finished day one and left us with plenty to talk about between ourselves.

Day 2 began with a bang!  Jamal Williams of Engage-Arkansas came in and spoke about using social media in recruiting and in spreading the word about who we are and what we do.  He is an effervescent speaker. We discussed types of social media available, and the problems and advantages of each one.  It was a lively exchange of ideas and experiences.

The second speaker for that morning was Jerry Wilson of the Enterprise Financial Group. He led a lively discussion on public speaking.  He brought out that public speaking is the #1 fear of most people.  He had us all tell our neighbor a story about a pivotal moment in our own lives.  He reminded us to tell it like a story with details that would make it more memorable and more engaging.  I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation.  I am not afraid to speak to groups, but I can remember a time when it was a serious problem.  He suggested things to do to overcome that fear.

We continued with one of our best presenters, Amanda Dolan. Amanda shared with us about “Our House”. I had never heard of Our House before and I am so pleased to know that it does exist. It is a homeless shelter, which offers such services as a place to stay short term, food to eat, childcare, medical care, and training to help people get a job and become productive citizens.

Amanda then led a thorough discussion of the education awards that available to AmeriCorps members after each year of service.  We were able to ask many questions, and now I have a good idea about how to access the grants and what to expect from them; this includes the tax situation, the amount of time we have to use them, and even the ability to better handle student loans.

I found this to be one of the best conferences I have attended since I joined AmeriCorps a year ago!

By Mary (Penny) Rowe
Arkansas Reads AmeriCorps Member 2019-2020

ALA congratulates the 2019 award winners announced at their Annual Luncheon, A Kaleidoscope of Learning, held at the Clinton Presidential Center. Student of the Year was presented to Raymond Brashers, Ozark Foothills Literacy Council. Raymond knew the inner workings of a motor, could solve complex electrical and plumbing problems, and could build machines and houses. Raymond could write his name, but he didn’t know his alphabet, or how to break down words. He had no phonemic awareness at all. With lots of help and support from his tutor, Laura Landers, he recently has been reading full sentences. He’s a busy man, always taking others to the doctor, get groceries, or working odd jobs, but he always makes time to be at his lessons twice a week, and he listens to tape-recorded lessons in his truck when he can’t be in class. Raymond encourages others like himself to learn to read. 

The Tutor of the Year was presented to Mary Rowe, Eastern Arkansas Literacy Project. Mary is a AmeriCorps Volunteer literacy tutor at the Cross Council Literacy Council. A retired special education school teacher, and artist, Mary began planting seeds that are starting to sprout through partnerships and training. Mary has only been with the Council since January, and has made a tremendous impact through her dedication, commitment, leadership and experience. Both awards are sponsored by the Lawyers for Literacy Committee, Arkansas Bar Association.

Other awards presented at the luncheon:

  • Brinkley Workforce Center, Business Partner of the Year
  • Kenyann Lucas, Literacy Council of Garland County, Win Paul Rockefeller Leadership Award
  • Randi Horsley, Twin Lakes Literacy Council, Barbara Hanley Volunteer of the Year Award
  • Dionne Ester, Eastern Arkansas Literacy Project, AmeriCorps Member of the Year

Congratulations to all of our 2019 award winners!

Each spring, at our annual conference, the Adult Learning Alliance takes time to recognize and honor a few of our outstanding students, tutors, councils, and partners. We are committed to honoring their hard work, determination, and enthusiasm for adult literacy and adult education, and we are proud of their successes and thankful for their contributions.

We are pleased to introduce to the 2018 Adult Learning Alliance award winners.

Student of the Year: Christina Cook of Literacy Action of Central Arkansas

She has “a thirst for knowledge”, is how Christina’s tutors describe her, citing her “hard work, determination, and dedication” to improving her literacy. From starting Literacy Action with a 4th grade reading level, to reading at a 7th grade level, planning to go to college to become a respiratory therapist, and reading for pleasure less than two years later, her hard work, determination, and dedication are worth celebrating.

Christina has long realized the value of reading and education, both for herself and others. Like many adult literacy students, she lives on a tight budget; expenses such as buying gas to drive to tutoring sessions or to buy books to read for pleasure means her and her family may go without other things, but Christina sees this sacrifice as essential for her family’s future.

Christina’s life has changed in many ways as her literacy has increased. She enjoys reading and owns so many books she now needs a bookcase! She can read directions while cooking or assembling products and is active in her church Bible study class, even volunteering to read to the class. As her abilities grow, so does her confidence, and she has become an example to her children and community of what can be accomplished through literacy.

Tutor of the Year: Gloria Thomas of the Magnolia/Columbia County Literacy Council

Gloria goes far beyond most people’s expectations of teacher; her warmth, generosity, and open, comforting nature are why her students and colleagues refer to her as “the grandmother we wish we all had”, “a shining beacon”, “a blessing”, and simply “magical”.

She understands her students are people first. This means she treats everyone with dignity and respect. The students at Magnolia/Columbia County Literacy Council are more than just learners; they are individuals worthy of kindness, empathy, and encouragement. In her primary role as teen tutor, she encounters many who are frustrated or ashamed by their situation, and for these students, as with all students, her “care and talent in providing [them] with instruction is limitless”.  Gloria is a gifted instructor who reaches her students by providing individualized training with authentic and endless support, an inspiring force recognized by everyone around her.

The First Annual Barbara Hanley Volunteer Award

The ALA is excited to announce a new, annual volunteer award named for one of Arkansas’ legends in adult literacy: Barbara Hanley. Barbara began her career in education as middle-school teacher in the Arkansas public schools, but was drawn to the world of adult education not long after. In 1982, she founded the Literacy Council of Jefferson County, in Pine Bluff, ultimately becoming Executive Director. A few years later, she assumed the role of Director of Field Services with ProLiteracy, until 2002, when she returned to Arkansas as a ProLiteracy consultant.

Barbara has served on the Arkansas Governor’s Adult Literacy Commission and on the ALA board of directors, from 1984-1988, 2002-2008, and since 2012. Her guidance has been instrumental as the Adult Literacy Councils evolved into the Adult Learning Alliance, and her institutional knowledge and experience, passion for advocacy, energy, and commitment to adult literacy is without compare.

Outstanding Business Partner Award: Citizens Bank of Batesville

The Outstanding Business Partner Award recognizes a business partner who has diligently built and maintained a strong, dependable relationship with a literacy council over an extended period of time. Citizens Bank’s commitment to literacy and the community is the embodiment of that description.

Citizens Bank of Batesville has proved an invaluable partner to the Ozark Foothills Literacy Project over the past few years. When OFLP found themselves without a place to meet or hold class and with a budget too small to secure a building or pay utilities, Citizens Bank provided an ideal solution: the bank owned a historic building in the city center, already equipped with offices that would serve as perfect classrooms for OFLP. When the structure was damaged earlier this year by a neighboring fire, Citizens Bank once again stepped in, allowing OFLP to use the bank’s community meeting rooms for months.

Since 2016, Citizens Bank has provided OFLP with a free space, utilities, and even maintenance. In addition to the great financial assistance they give, Citizens Bank also promotes OFLP’s services and tutoring, to the benefit of the entire community. They have helped create an environment of stability and security, allowing the literacy council to provide consistent, quality support to their students.

Literacy Council Excellence in Education Award: The Literacy Council of Monroe County

The Literacy Council of Monroe County has served Monroe County, in the Arkansas Delta region for 26 years. First founded by Loda Nickelson and a group of local citizens concerned about adult literacy, the Council has grown into a full-service adult educator provider; students can study reading, writing, ESL, computer and internet skills, resume writing and workforce services, and to obtain a GED. This year, the Council will expand further, to include a summer Family Literacy Program.

According to state surveys, the Delta region of Arkansas combats some of the lowest literacy rates in the state. The Literacy Council of Monroe County has been a reliable force in this area for over a quarter-century, supporting hundreds of students in attaining their educational goals.

Innovative Project Award: The Literacy Council of White County

The Literacy Council of White County has taken a unique and comprehensive approach to Family Literacy with the goal of empowering parents to engage successfully in their children’s education and literacy. The Council has grown from providing only adult literacy to family literacy and parental engagement. Programs include teaching parents how to help and support their children through classes on literacy, math, spelling, and more.

Not only does Family Literacy help children and families, the Council has seen marked improvement in their adult learners. “We have discovered our adult students make better gains and are more engaged in their learning when they can apply their skills to helping their children as well.”

The Literacy Council of White County is determined to break the cycle of generational limited literacy by offering programs and classes that foster the growth of the entire family.

In the spirit of giving, BHP, a leading global resources company, has recognized the need to support adult learning in Arkansas. Recently, they awarded the Adult Learning Alliance $18,575 to support efforts in Conway, Faulkner, Van Buren, and White Counties, where they have operations.

In Conway County, they invested in technology to increase the council’s digital literacy capacity for both students and tutors. Students will be able to improve their workforce preparations with online job application and resume preparation, as well as engage in a new learning method to achieve gains in basic literacy. Tutors will also have greater access to resources and professional development opportunities.

An increase in students has necessitated acquiring additional curriculum to meet needs in reading, writing, and English language proficiency in Faulkner County. Funding for a new donor database will improve staff efficiency and resource and time management, as well as help Faulkner County increase their donors, donations, and donor retention.

Van Buren County needed new tables and chairs to provide a more comfortable environment conducive to learning. Funding for curriculum will enable the Council to provide all students with reading, math, and pre-GED texts, workbooks, and supplies, as well as tutors. The addition of more technology will help
dyslexic and learning challenged students increase the rate of progress and achievement in all subjects. In addition, the Council will be able to add a Basic Computer Literacy  class to its curriculum offering, along with more computers.

White County has been a leader amongst the councils in offering services to students with dyslexic and learning challenges.  This grant will allow the Council to provide a more interactive classroom with more regalia and think-kits for their ESL classes, and additional Barton levels to allow students to progress through the program to full literacy.

BHP’s generosity will allow each of these councils to continue to effectively meet the needs of their students, while offering additional services that would attract new students and meet the needs of the community.

The Adult Learning Alliance is grateful for this grant from BHP and their investment in helping our councils provide a foundation for adults who read below a fifth grade level, readying them to meet their personal goals — whatever they may be.

Since 2001, Arkansas Literacy Councils has been awarded AmeriCorps positions. Now in our fifteenth year, our AmeriCorps program, Arkansas Reads, continues to give local citizens with a heart for service, an opportunity to meet crucial needs in their community by serving as an AmeriCorps Member. 

The Members duties are tutoring students, training volunteers, and recruiting students and volunteers. Our AmeriCorps Members provide encouragement and support to their students as they strive to achieve their goals. As Members assess the needs of their low literacy learners, many times there are other needs that must be met before they can even begin to effectively tutor their students. Members refer students to local agencies to meet their needs or even assist them with health literacy and financial literacy assistance.

AmeriCorps Members are Superheroes in their local communities! A superhero is an AmeriCorps Member who possesses the ability to defeat the “villains” their students may be confronting as they prepare to better their literacy skills. Those villains could be low literacy skills, little to no job related skills, unemployment and low self-esteem. Then this hero, our Arkansas Reads AmeriCorps Member, comes along and makes life better!

We are proud of our AmeriCorps Members and all of their individual accomplishments as they meet the needs of the students they serve in their community.

Written by Belinda Sanders, Program Director

Arkansas Literacy Councils (ALC) is collaborating with the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) and the Arkansas Department of Career Education (ACE) to improve the literacy of Arkansas’s prison inmates. ProLiteracy states that 75% of the inmates in State prisons have either not completed high school or are low literacy readers. In a joint effort with ADC’s Chaplaincy, we are striving to change this number in Arkansas.

Twice a year, ALC will visit the ADC Units to train literate inmates to be tutors. This is a two-day training session using the Laubach Way to Reading and Laubach Way to English curriculums. To date, we have trained over 40 tutors. With the structure of the Laubach Way to Reading program, these tutors have the tools needed to elevate an inmate to a fifth grade reading level, which enables them to more successfully prepare for taking the GED. With these skills in hand, those inmates facing reentry will be better equipped for reintegration into society.

Written by Heather Powell, Training Director

“Never Too Old To Try New Things” by Brandi Fernandez, Arkansas Reads

I have had the pleasure of working with adult students from over 20 different countries. When I think of a student success story, every one of my students come to mind, because every single one of them is successful. Some have finally mastered the alphabet, while others have finally got the hang of past and present tense verbs. Each day they add a new accomplishment to their list.

Two of my students, Min and Fu, are both 72 years old and are from China. Fu is a tall man, with eyes full of joy and an unprecedented love of knowledge. He was a doctor, who traveled around the world helping people. He has been retired for 12 years now. Min is his wife. She is a small woman, full of fire, who has a hobby of learning. She was a dentist in her younger days, and has been retired for 23 years now after becoming ill.

Currently, Min and Fu are in the process of applying for their green card. They are waiting on the interviews. Over the holiday break, they moved to a different apartment in order to be closer to Ozark Literacy Council. Every Saturday, the two ride the bus to the Fayetteville Public Library, to help them learn English. They have both attended class every day with the exception of about five days. They do not miss unless it is absolutely unavoidable. At 72 years old, they are more involved with a community that used to be foreign to them, many Fayetteville natives are. That is very impressive.

Min and Fu are the kind of people who bring light into a darkened room simply with their laughter. I have never met anyone so full of life as these two. The stories Fu tells us of his travels, in his broken English, and Chinese accent have given me many laughs and even more insight into a world that seems so far away. Min is fearless and has this uncanny ability to help others who speak no Chinese and no English. Min and Fu are the perfect examples of lifelong learners. Being a lifelong learner is one of the most important things a person can be. Love, acceptance, friendships, and change come from being a lifelong learner. At 72 years old, each of these students still grow each and every day. Most importantly, they are helping others through their knowledge. It is not uncommon for Fu to stop me in the middle of a lesson to delve into a story that provides insight from a different culture. For example, before our holiday break, I was giving a lesson about New Year’s traditions. Halfway through my lesson, Fu raised his hand and went on to tell us all about Chinese New Year.

I have learned through Min and Fu that you are never too old to learn. You are never too old to try new things. You are never too old to stop dreaming. Fu wants to get a job after they get their green cards. He wants to clean things, for working is a way to stay young. Min wants to keep learning English, and then maybe learn Spanish. Through Min and Fu, I have learned that I have the ability to help people reach their dreams. I have the ability to change their lives and thus the world, through education.

This is just a small portion of a very long success story, for every student in my classroom plays their own part. They each have achieved things through learning English. They have each taught me many lessons, and I have I taught them many things. Working together, learning together, and teaching together are the real success stories.