By Emily Williams
The Literacy Council of Central Alabama is basking in the glow of a new year and a successful summer as they enjoy their newly renovated space on 1st Avenue North and gear up for the Junior Board’s annual Brews for Books fundraiser on Aug. 14.
The non-profit organization, a United Way agency, was displaced from its offices in May 2014 by a fire that destroyed the interior of the building.
Executive Director Beth Wilder of Mountain Brook said that what seemed to be a tragedy turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With a $500,000 capital campaign, Literacy Council staff and board members were able to rebuild their offices and, in effect, expand the programs they offer.
The Literacy Council has called its 1st Avenue North building home since 2002. While the building’s name is still up for discussion, Alabama Power was granted naming rights in return for their donation to the rebuilding campaign.
The building used to be the Liberty Overalls plant before being converted into a radio station and offices in the 1970s. Wilder described the space as “funky and chopped up” with large slanted windows providing views into each of the staff members’ offices.
“It was not designed to be an adult learning center. It was designed to be a radio station,” Wilder said. “In the last 3 years – when we opened an in-house program – we weren’t ever really set up to be a school. It was just office space and a board room.”
To accommodate the addition of in-house programs, the council began converting closet space into tutoring carrels for students.
Instead of seeking out a new space after the fire, the Literacy Council chose to stay put on 1st Avenue North because of the location.
“It’s convenient to our learners,” Wilder said. “They can ride the bus. The guys from Jimmie Hale and First Light, they are able to walk here. So, it’s a really convenient location for our learners.”
Since re-opening in January, Wilder said the council has seen an increase in learners due to the increased visibility in the new space and the programs.
“We’ve been able to add some new programs that we had not been able to add before,” Wilder said. “We have a free GED class that is Monday through Thursday, adult basic computer skills, some ESL tutoring and financial literacy classes.”
The council recently removed a commercial about their GED classes because of the immense interest in the course and the increased attendance.
While Brasfield and Gorrie was renovating the interior of the building – with the help of Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood Inc. – the council used the Junior League of Birmingham’s space in English Village to continue tutoring. In addition, the League donated the GED classroom that is being used to provide free classes taught by an instructor from Jefferson State Community College.
Learners can participate in self-study and one-on-one tutoring in the Liz Huntley Word Lab and Reading Workshop, named by donors Kathryn and Raymond Harbert in honor of their close friend.
The new building also houses a TCL classroom donated by the Mike and Gillian Goodrich Foundation which houses laptops donated by Mountain Brook High School. Students are able to check out laptops for self-study during the day.
The council also has a strong outreach program in Central Alabama, covering Blount, Jefferson, St. Clair, Walker and Shelby counties. All of the courses they provide are free and all of their tutors are volunteers, the only cost is the purchase of the workbooks, which runs at about $25.
“Most of our classes in Shelby County are (English as a Second Language), because of the population,” Wilder said. “Most of Walker County is basic adult literacy. Blount County is kind of a mix. We try to meet the needs of each specific county.”
In addition to adult courses, the council incorporates early learning initiatives for children to promote reading at an early age. Their Pre-K program is so successful that it has become a model for similar programs in other states.
“The Literacy Council has been instrumental in bringing the campaign for grade-level reading to Birmingham, which we are going to kick-off early next year with the support of the United Way and the Bold Golds initiative,” Wilder said.
The daughter of an English professor, Wilder said that reading was mandated in their household and has always been a part of her life.
“I think it is something that you take for granted if you grew up with it,” she said. “I can’t imagine not having that skill. When you think about it, literacy is the foundation on which everything else is built and you can’t go forward in life with anything if you don’t have that very basic skill.”
Wilder fostered her passion for reading with the council by working as a literacy volunteer with Better Basics before joining the council’s board of directors. In November, she will celebrate five years as executive director.
Over the years, Wilder said she has seen first-hand what illiteracy looks like in comparison to the assumptions of the general public.
“You have a myth of what an illiterate person looks like,” she said. “I think a lot of people picture a homeless person who lives under the bridge. Well, yes we have some homeless people in our program, but most of our learners are hard-working people that have jobs, they want to do better, they want to be able to read to their kids, they want to be able to help their kids.”
Both she and her staff have borne witness to a multitude of success stories through their work. One such story was provided by the council’s director of communications and development, Missy Burchart.
One of the council’s regular students is a man named Robert from the Jimmie Hale Mission. Burchart said he usually is the first student to arrive in the morning and often performs helpful tasks such as plugging in the coffee maker and pushing a cart of books onto the street for passersby to peruse.
“A lot of our learners are that way,” Burchart said. “They feel like doing stuff for us is their way of giving back. It means the world to us because they want to be part of it and they feel like they are home here.”
Burchart said that Robert came into her office one morning and asked for her card so that he could continue his GED classes after he moved to Tuscaloosa.
“He looked at me with the most serious look on his face and he said, ‘You know, when you learn stuff, that’s powerful,’” Burchart said. “He said, ‘Yeah, they can’t take that away from me. Every time I want to turn back to that mess I’m going to think, look how far you came, how much smarter you are and don’t you do it.’”
Burchart said she sees many of the students who first entered the facility shy and embarrassed become powerful as their literacy skills become stronger.
“These are people whose first experience with education was a bad one,” Wilder said. “Somebody told them they couldn’t and, at some point, they started to believe it.”
Both Wilder and Burchart said that tutors enter their office daily, eyes brimming with tears, ready to recount yet another breakthrough that a learner has shared with them.
Not only tutors, Wilder said, but also a group of board members and a strong junior board work tirelessly to raise funds that the Literacy Council needs to continue to change lives.
“Our junior board is really fired up,” Wilder said. “We have a great team with a lot of great people.”
The junior board’s Brews for Books fundraiser will take place at Avondale Brewery Aug. 14th at 6:30 p.m. A line-up of bands including The Schmohawks, Andy Spain and Lost Astronaut, and Heath Green and The Makeshifters will provide music. The cover charge for the event is $5 and proceeds will benefit the Council’s adult literacy and ESOL programs.
Wilder said, “I think one thing that we really try to do here – we’ve assembled a team that is very invested in what we do – but we try to make it a very welcoming place, because they are here because their first go-around at education didn’t go so well.”
For more information about The Literacy Council or Brews for Books, visit www.alliteracycouncil.wordpress.com.