Virginia Beale, The Literacy Council:
‘Find Something That Really Speaks to You’
By Keysha Drexel
When Virginia Beale moved to the Over the Mountain area a few years ago, the 31-year-old said she was shocked to learn that so many adults in the Birmingham metro area cannot read.
And for the past three years, the ninth-grade English teacher at Homewood High School has made it her mission to change that.
Beale, of Homewood, is on the junior board of The Literacy Council of Central Alabama. Formed in 1991 by the United Way of Central Alabama, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and the Junior League of Alabama, the nonprofit organization seeks to develop, strengthen and support basic literacy for those in Jefferson, Shelby, Blount, St. Clair and Walker counties.
“To find out that there are more than 92,000 functionally illiterate adults living in Central Alabama was just shocking to me,” she said. “That means there are thousands of adults in our area who can’t fill out a job application or even read the label on a prescription bottle. I knew I had to get involved in trying to make that awful statistic go away.”
Beale said her father is an educator, and she credits his example for making her passionate about literacy and learning.
“I grew up in an environment where education was really valued, and I want to extend that to people who have not had those kinds of advantages,” she said.
Beale grew up in Mobile and graduated from McGill-Toolen Catholic High School. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi. She came to Alabama about a year after her younger sister, Susan Shields, moved to the Birmingham area.
“Susan moved here about a year before I did and was immediately super-involved in the whole Birmingham area. She’s also on the junior board of The Literacy Council,” Beale said. “She definitely motivates me to want to keep up with her.”
Before she started her teaching career, Beale worked at Alabama Public Television and said she learned more about The Literacy Council through that job.
“I worked with The Literacy Council there and really began to realize how dedicated the staff is. That made me want to volunteer, and when I started volunteering is when I realized how amazing it is that they do so much with so little manpower,” Beale said.
Beale was still working as a volunteer with the organization when The Literacy Council decided to form a junior board.
“It was about three years ago when they started the junior board, and so I jumped at the chance to become more involved with what The Literacy Council is trying to do,” she said.
Missy Burchart, The Literacy Council’s communications and development manager, said Beale “has been a tireless advocate” for the organization.
“Virginia was one of the founding members of The Literacy Council’s junior board and immediately infused her enthusiasm and positive nature into our meeting and planning for events,” Burchart said. “She is a natural leader who works hard to make sure everything the junior board undertakes is a success.”
Beale said she’s inspired to work hard for The Literacy Council by the countless stories of triumph that she hears from the staff and from volunteers who tutor adults in the literacy and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs.
“The main reasons people will come to The Literacy Council is because their children are starting to read and they can’t help,” she said. “That has to be so heartbreaking for those parents.”
By teaching the parents to read, Beale said, she thinks The Literacy Council does an important job in helping end the cycle of illiteracy in families.
“The kids who don’t have books at home, who are not read to at home are the ones we see struggling in the classroom,” she said. “It becomes a vicious cycle where the parents can’t read and then the kids can’t read either. If we can help the parents learn to read, then we have a better chance of stopping those cycles.”
Beale said the reason it is important for everyone in the Birmingham metro area to be good readers is about more than making sure everyone can enjoy a good novel.
“You really have to think about the impact of illiteracy on our economy,” Beale said. “How can we have a thriving economy in Birmingham when thousands of people can’t read or write well enough to fill out a job application? Education is where it starts. I truly believe that’s the key to making this a better place for all of us.”
And while she is motivated by that strong belief in the power of literacy, Beale said she knows if she weren’t involved with The Literacy Council, she would still be active in philanthropic endeavors in the Birmingham metro area.
“I have always liked to have that component to my life,” Beale said. “Even as a student, the schools I went to encouraged us to give back, to do our part to help others. I learned that you don’t have to make these great, grand gestures to really make a difference. Sometimes, it is the small things that have the biggest impact.”
Beale said she also credits her parents for instilling in her a sense of civic responsibility.
“I have to thank my parents for raising me that way, and I think that’s true for a lot of people of my generation,” she said. “We grew up seeing our parents volunteer or getting involved in community projects through our schools. We really also have to thank our teachers for making that part of the lessons we learned.”
As an English teacher, Beale said The Literacy Council was a natural choice for giving her a way to share her talents and passion to help others.
“I advise other people to do the same thing–find something that really speaks to you, something you really want to change and devote yourself to that,” she said.
Beale said the Birmingham metro area offers a myriad of opportunities for young philanthropists looking to make a contribution to their communities.
“There are so many different organizations in our area and so many different ways to get involved,” she said. “I advise people, especially if they are new to the area, to ask around, ask your friends and co-workers and talk to people who are already involved in the organization and about why they like it.”
In the Internet age, Beale said, it is easier than ever for young philanthropists to find out where they are needed and where they can best use their talents and strengths.
“All of the organizations now have great websites, and most are even on social media. I advise people to hit the Internet, check out the websites or the organizations in our area, read their mission statements and find out everything you can. I’ve found that people are very open to answering potential volunteers’ questions,” she said.
Beale said she’s been impressed with the other young professionals she has met while working with The Literacy Council.
“It gives me great hope for the future because we have great people who are really invested in doing their part and helping out in any way they can,” she said. “The nonprofits make it fun and easy to help good causes and actually, volunteering is becoming the thing to do. Everyone wants to get involved.”