LIFT turning page on illiteracy
The issue of illiteracy is of dire consequence on both the local and national scene.
Just last month, a report from the National Commission on Adult Literacy stated:
“Education drives the economy. Almost a decade into the 21st century, America faces a choice: We can invest in the basic education and skills of our workforce and remain competitive in today’s global economy, or we can continue to overlook glaring evidence of a national crisis and move further down the path to decline.”
Call it clairvoyance or the desire to create a more perfect community: As far back as 1960, the National Council of Jewish Women’s Greater Dallas Section began a project that it labeled Operation LIFT, or Literacy Instruction for Texas.
The president at the time was Pat Peiser, who serves on the LIFT board today.
The concept percolated for a year as the program became reality.
Sonyia Hartwell, current executive director, reports that “for six months, three times each week, The Dallas Morning News ran half- and quarter-page ads with coupons for teachers’ and students’ registration. WFAA-TV and KERA-TV agreed to run a TV literacy teaching series at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. five days each week.
“The project became a citywide effort. Classes began on June 5, 1961, with 250 volunteers, 150 from NCJW, and served 600 students during the first year.
“NCJW won the very first Dallas Times Herald Club of the Year Award for Operation LIFT in 1961.”
The next year, NCJW turned the program over to become a communitysponsored organization.
LIFT relies on a dedicated force of more than 500 volunteers to teach the 150 adult literacy and English as a second language classes offered at 39 sites in Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties, said Leslie Clay, director of community development.
“Volunteers commit to teaching at least two hours a week for 12 weeks,” Ms. Clay said.
And more than 80 percent of them come back each year.
“Many volunteers have been giving their time to LIFT for 10 years or more,” she said.
Ms. Clay said the women of the Junior League of Dallas are longtime supporters of LIFT, supplying more than 10 volunteers each year.
Maureen Milligan is one of those volunteers, she said.
She’s been teaching adult literacy classes for a year — continuing the teaching experience she began as an educator in inner-city Washington, D.C., with Teach for America.
“For Maureen, the most rewarding part of her volunteer experience is knowing that she is changing lives,” Ms. Clay said.
High demand, rewards
Each of the five adult learners in Ms. Milligan’s class, which she teaches as a team with Valerie Ness, keeps a journal, Ms. Clay said.
“One of the adult learners, who works in the juniors department of a local department store, wrote in her journal that she wanted to be able to read her Bible and read to her grandchildren,” she said.
“Just a few weeks ago, this adult learner shared with the class the joy she felt when she was able to read along in her Bible with her pastor and understood the passage. She now aspires to be a writer herself. Maureen’s students are committed to completing the course they have begun.”
In 1993, LIFT moved to the Wilson Historic District; 10 years later, it moved to its current space at 2121 Main St.
Growth in the number of participants has been phenomenal.
Between 2004 and the end of 2007, the number of adult learners participating in LIFT programs increased by 292 percent, from 2,103 to 6,141, and it continues to increase.
For the 12-month period ending this past April, LIFT has served 6,317 students . Of those, 1,418 were in adult literacy, 4,018 were in English as a second language classes, and 881 were enrolled in family literacy programs.
In 2003, LIFT received a grant from the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy for its family literacy programs.
An exemplary record
Ms. Hartwell, the executive director, explained the criteria LIFT has put in place:
Classes are free and meet for two hours twice a week.
Adult learners commit to attending every class, being on time, and calling when they must be absent. Poor attendance may cause participants to be dropped from class.
Potential participants must make an appointment with LIFT for a screening interview.
During that interview, staff members determine the reading level of the participant and gather pertinent contact and background information for the file.
All information is confidential.
LIFT asks that students donate the cost of books they want to keep, take home and write in.
Students may pay weekly or monthly, as they are able. The average book cost for 2008 is $20.
Ms. Hartwell noted that LIFT’s exemplary record has spread far beyond its core area of operation.
LIFT staff members were featured speakers in 2005 at the ProLiteracy Worldwide Conference in Tucson, Ariz., where they presented the innovative and successful Community Partnership Program model.
“This model evolved from LIFT’s strategic initiative to work with community partners to establish its classes at partner sites in areas of the community that are currently underserved,” Ms. Hartwell added.
For more information about LIFT, its programs, its need for volunteers and applying for participation in its programs, call Leslie Clay at 214-824-2000, ext. 230.