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Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

Book lover turned literacy advocate looks to change lives ‘one word at a time’

Why We Wrote This

Coping mechanisms can hide adult illiteracy – a problem linked to higher poverty and health-care costs. But even after cuts in government funding, one literacy nonprofit in Arkansas, led by Sara Drew, has grown.

David Karas
Sara Drew is the executive director of Literacy Action of Central Arkansas, which works with 850 clients a year.

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Literacy Action of Central Arkansas’s client base is growing. From new immigrants to the estimated 16 percent of adults in the region in need of basic literacy training, the students are learning to read and speak English as a way for them to get family-supporting jobs, teach their children the value of literacy, and have better access to information in daily life. Yet under executive director Sara Drew’s leadership, the nonprofit has a waiting list of volunteer tutors, not clients. This summer, Literacy Action has been trying a family literacy pilot program. “These are parents who have three jobs; these are parents who never learned how to read,” Ms. Drew says. “We know these people are not lazy, not stupid; they are not any of the myths associated with literacy.” From the nonprofit’s perspective, she says, addressing illiteracy within a family can combat broader challenges. “For us, tackling it on a two-generation approach, or even a three-generation approach, is really the only way to end those cycles,” she says. “If you cannot read, you’re never going to escape those socioeconomic issues.”

Christina Cook wants to be a respiratory therapist and hopes she and her husband can one day own a home and several acres of land – and she isn’t letting the low grades she got in school hold her back.

Ms. Cook, age 40, hasn’t been in school for some time, but she has been hitting the books and receives regular tutoring thanks to Literacy Action of Central Arkansas.

“I am trying to get my associate degree, my bachelor’s degree, and my master’s degree,” says the resident of North Little Rock, Ark. As a respiratory therapist, “I will be able to help people, and [we will] be able to live in a house of our own.”

Based on the fifth floor of a library in Arkansas’s capital, Little Rock, Literacy Action was founded in 1986 to organize volunteer tutors who could teach reading and English language skills. The organization serves seven counties in central Arkansas and works with 850 clients a year, delivering more than 11,000 hours of instruction.

Sara Drew has been Literacy Action’s executive director since 2014. On a recent morning in the organization’s headquarters, she reflected on the profound effect of literacy on both herself and those her nonprofit supports. The banner on the wall behind her, “Changing Lives – one word at a time,” perhaps says it all.

“I’ve always been passionate about reading ... and I spent most of my life in a library, [and] I don’t know what life would be like if I didn’t have that escape,” she says. “I see the life-changing results that come from learning how to read.”

Adults might seek out the nonprofit for a variety of reasons, but the goal is the same: helping people learn to read or speak English as a way for them to get family-supporting jobs, teach children the value of literacy, and have better access to information in their daily life.

The client base of the organization has expanded in recent years, in part because of the growth in demand for English as a second language courses.

“People from all over the world who are immigrants in Arkansas take our programs,” Ms. Drew says. The situations vary, she explains, from the case of an immigrant who isn’t even literate in her own language to a newcomer who had a prestigious career he wishes to continue in the United States.

Literacy Action also serves those who need basic literacy training, a population estimated to be about 16 percent of adults in central Arkansas.

“If you can’t recognize a bus route, if you can’t read a menu, you obviously can’t fill out a résumé,” Drew says. She notes the “shame factor” for adults who are functionally illiterate.

“Their coping mechanisms are incredible; they have been able to hide it,” she says. “They come to us normally because their kids are in school and they can’t help their kids, and late in life they come to us when they can no longer do manual labor. They can no longer do a job that is based on their physical abilities.”

Literacy Action has also been serving inmates in the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility for three years now, though that population is transient, meaning that often those receiving instruction do not stay in the institution long.

Literacy Action’s tutoring retention rate including the jail population is 56 percent, while the clients not at the detention center stick with the program at a rate of 75 percent.

Drew joined Literacy Action in November 2013 and was promoted to executive director the following October. She began her career in web design before working for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and later Heifer International, both of which are based in Little Rock. She also helped open the Esse Purse Museum, also located in the state capital.

A turbulent time

Drew’s tenure at Literacy Action began at a turbulent time for literacy councils, as Arkansas became more stringent in its funding of them. Most lost their financial support from the state, she says, and some folded.

After the cuts, Drew was left with the difficult task of rebuilding the nonprofit. She slowly hired more staff and expanded operations, and today the organization has an annual budget averaging about $230,000. More than half its funds come from grants and the rest from fundraisers and contributions from individuals.

Under Drew’s leadership, the nonprofit’s number of volunteer tutors has risen to 250 – to the point where client waiting lists have been eliminated. In fact, today there is a waiting list of tutors. “I never dreamed that would happen,” Drew notes.

This summer, Literacy Action has been trying a family literacy pilot program, an eight-week experience for parents and their children. Plenty of books have gone home with participants.

“These are parents who have three jobs; these are parents who never learned how to read,” Drew says. “We know these people are not lazy, not stupid; they are not any of the myths associated with literacy.”

From the nonprofit’s perspective, she says, breaking cycles of illiteracy within a family can also combat broader challenges.

“For us, tackling it on a two-generation approach, or even a three-generation approach, is really the only way to end those cycles,” she says. “If you cannot read, you’re never going to escape those socioeconomic issues.”

At the library

Jeannie Burrus, assistant manager of patron services for the main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System, frequently sees Literacy Action clients visiting the library for tutoring. On a recent afternoon at the library desk right outside the nonprofit’s headquarters, she shared her thoughts on the organization.

“There are a lot of people coming to our country who don’t have strong English-speaking skills,” Ms. Burrus says. “The tutors are able to work with them and help them learn our language, which is really important for them to become integrated into the community [and] to be able to get a job.”

She also sees the “courageous” adults who come later in life for assistance with literacy and believes the nonprofit’s placement in the library branch is fitting.

“I think it’s just great that [Literacy Action] can be here,” she says. “It is a natural fit, I think, for them to do their tutoring in a library. They really do great work.”

Although Cook found the organization in hopes of building her reading and writing skills as she returned to school, she was also interested in improving her math abilities. Drew went out and bought her a math book that she has since been working through.

“It is very inspiring,” Cook says. “They really try to help you in every area of your education. Anything you need to help you, they will get it.”

Cook’s current tutor, Irma Jaime, knows well the importance of literacy skills.

“Being able to read and write is so important in daily life, success and self-worth,” she says in an email, adding that working with Drew and her team is enjoyable. “Sara Drew is dedicated to advancing literacy. She is always reaching to improve Literacy Action’s programs.”

Speaking about Cook in particular, Ms. Jaime is proud of the strides she’s made.

“Working with Christina is inspiring,” she says. “She is making great progress through determination and hard work.”

And for Cook, that sort of support is what has made the difference.

“They are saying, ‘We believe in you,’ ” she says. “It takes a lot for a person to say that they believe in you, [and] if they believe in me, I can push myself.”

For more, visit literacyactionar.org.

Three other groups involved in education

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to achieve high levels of literacy in Ghana. Take action: Help mentor an at-risk rural child for a year.

Unstoppable Foundation brings education to communities in developing countries to address the cycle of poverty. Take action: Join the funding of a classroom in Kenya.

Seeds of Learning promotes learning in developing communities in Central America while educating volunteers about the region. Take action: Donate money to support students in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

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