Cookie mogul pulls in 'dough' for literacy volunteers
Boston — The ''face that launched a thousand chips'' has launched another campaign tour for his favorite cause - the Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA).
Wally (Famous) Amos, of chocolate chip cookie renown, is national spokesman for the LVA, whose 20 years of one-on-one tutoring have conquered functional illiteracy for tens of thousands of Americans. In honor of Literacy Volunteers of America Week (Feb. 7-15), Famous Amos has been drumming up publicity with radio and TV appearances, and visiting Literacy Volunteers offices around the country.
Says Mr. Amos, ''Twenty-three million adults in this country can't read. It's something that most of us take for granted. Man, if you can't read, there's no way you can function in this world.'' Wally himself has never tutored, although he did attend the training course to get a feel for the program.
Since Wally's arrival three years ago, the LVA reports sizable increases in participation, funding, and public visibility. ''He's brought the word to millions,'' exclaims Executive Director Helen Crouch. ''Existing programs have expanded - new programs have started in places like Louisville, Baltimore, Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles.'' Wally helped promote the Louisville, Ky., program in the spring of '81 and was present Feb. 8 for the kickoff of its tutor workshop.
Anybody who can read and has a high school diploma or equivalency can tutor. However, the LVA requires that volunteers first take an 18-hour training course and commit themselves to at least six months of private tutoring for two hours a week. All teaching materials come from the national organization; local affiliate leaders keep in close touch with teacher and student to ensure the success of the lessons.
One veteran LVA tutor remarks, ''It is important to realize where you stand in relation to the student; this seems to be one of the great fears of the tutors. They say, 'but I've never taught and I've only been through high school, ' but because they've been accomplished readers, love reading, and have some knowledge, they can relate to an individual on a face-to-face basis.''
Literacy Volunteers attracts a wide variety of students. One Boston-area rug dealer, a high school grad, had to rely on his wife and business partner to handle billing and materials - he couldn't read. After six months with an LVA tutor, he learned enough rug vocabulary to read catalogues for his business. He had achieved his goal. The tutoring sessions stopped.
Another student sought tutoring out of a ''passion for words and the ideas that words convey, not for functional reasons such as getting a high school equivalency or a better job,'' explains his tutor. The student was a share cropper's son in Alabama with a fourth grade education. In three years of tutoring, his teacher has seen a remarkable transformation. The young man now reads far more adequately, but more importantly, says the tutor, ''He's growing as a person. He sees himself as a black that can help other blacks.''
Still another type of LVA student is the recently arrived immigrant who needs English for everyday activities - grocery shopping, going to the post office, reading a bus schedule. These are much easier students to handle since they don't have a history of academic failure to overcome.
How did Famous Amos, the Horatio Alger of cookie-dom, become the champion of literacy? He explains, ''About four years ago, I was looking for a national nonprofit group to promote. Literacy Volunteers had no national spokesman . . . so I offered my services.'' Wally also serves on the Board of the Friends of Libraries, USA, the support group for all ''friends of libraries'' groups around the country.
The value of promotion is nothing new to Amos, who spent 14 years as a talent agent. When his business as a personal manager crumbled, he traded show biz for the cookie biz. His little store on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, the first anywhere to sell chocolate chip cookies exclusively, quickly became as famous his movie star customers.
Wally Amos still heads his $5 million a year cookie empire, but his first priority is Literacy Volunteers. ''I couldn't go on promoting cookies forever,'' he explains. ''Volunteers are just incredible - they do so much and ask nothing in return.''