On Saturday, Sept. 8, Literacy Network hosted an open house celebration to honor 10 volunteers for their thousands of hours of dedicated service to adult learners. These volunteers have been dedicated to teaching reading, writing, and speaking skills to adults and families so they can achieve financial independence, good health, and greater involvement in community life.
“We were looking through our records of tutors and saw that there was this nice list of tutors who have more than 1,000 hours volunteering in their lifetime and so we thought we would honor those folks,” said Literacy Network Executive Director Jeff Burkhart. “We also saw the list of people with more than 500 hours and we thought we would just go ahead and honor the 10 folks with the most lifetime hours.”
Literacy Network is a non-profit organization made up of teachers, learners, tutors, volunteers, and donors all working together to improve adult literacy in Dane County. A wide variety of programs are offered to help adults improve their reading, writing, and English skills so that they may better achieve goals specific to their needs: to read to their children or help with homework, to fill out a job application, to understand finances, or speak with a doctor about a health concern.
“We know that the work we are doing is really necessary and the tutors are often asking us to give them more resources and more information about tutoring,” Burkhart says. “We offer a wide variety of in-service trainings that have been really well attended this year. We have professionals from the university and staff here who offer workshops two times a month and we have tutor trainings two times a month, also. We give people a lot of professional development through that process.”
Improved literacy skills mean a better chance at a safe, productive life and a stronger connection to the community. Literacy Network programs include over a dozen well-attended classes throughout Madison that focus on health literacy, financial literacy, workplace literacy, and more. Together, with more than 500 volunteer tutors, over 1,200 adults are helped each year.
The Literacy Network, 1118 S. Park Street, is located right in the heart of Madison’s south side. “We’ve grown as an organization quite a bit just in the last couple of years and we’ve grown to the point where we will need more space,” Burkhart said. “We are currently looking. But a more immediate goal is to make sure we meet our goal for the tutoring campaign that starts now and will end in December. Our goal is to recruit about 100 tutors in that period of time. We’ve been really successful at recruiting year-round.”
This was the first time ever doing an open house for International Literacy Day which was also an opportunity to meet some of the great tutors and other volunteers that have worked for Literacy Network over the years. The 10 volunteers that were honored on Sept. 8 were David Breyer, Tony Voss, Mary Weaver, Michael Gessler, Kathy Granquist, Marilyn Neiman, Donna Stapf, Kathy DeMets, Rick Salatino, and Nathaniel Godfrey.
“Our top tutor — David Breyer — volunteers in so many different things,” Burkhart says. “He tutors at Madison College and this year alone has successfully tutored nine people to get their citizenship. He’s 9-0. And he’s got two students that he’s working with and they will be taking their test in two or three weeks. He also volunteers for our Run/Walk. He’s just been incredible. He keeps volunteering more and more.”
In addition to honoring the 10 exceptional volunteers, the Sept. 8 event kicked off the Literacy Network's fall tutor drive. Parents who are poor readers don't read as often to their children as parents who are strong readers. Children in literacy-poor homes enter school less prepared for learning than other children. Literacy Network tutors help parents build a strong foundation for their children by supporting their reading and communication abilities. Their programs teach reading, writing and speaking skills to adults and families so they can achieve financial independence, good health and greater involvement in community life. All programs are free of charge and it’s the many volunteer tutors that make it all function so well.
“We have a community literacy program where we actually train and recruit volunteers to serve in various locations,” Burkhart says. “We have a total of 270 volunteers throughout the community who are personal tutors. We train them and match them up. They do their work somewhat independently.”
The tutors report back to the Literacy Network monthly. “We always get great information from those reports about how people are progressing and learning,” Burkhart says. “A lot of our tutors stick with us for years.”
The average age of a student involved in the program is around 28 or 29. “Most of the students that we work with have kids so having a personal tutor really makes it a little easy to study if you can’t get to a class that doesn’t have childcare,” Burkhart says. “You’re impacting not only the parent but their ability to support their kids.”
Founded in 1974 as a non-profit organization, Literacy Network has been a United Way agency since 1979. Literacy Network is also a member of Wisconsin Literacy. Their vision is that every person in Dane County will have the literacy skills needed to independently pursue their life goals, support their family, and be active in their community. As Madison has become more diverse, Literacy Network has been outreaching to keep up with those diverse populations.
“We’ve been working with La Movida to do advertising for new students,” Burkhart says. “We also have been collaborating with the Madison schools when they’ve been doing student registration to connect with parents to make sure that they know that we have classes available and other programs.”
The Literacy Network is adamant about doing their part to help lessen the minority achievement gap.
“I’ve talked with [MMSD Interim Superintendent] Jane Belmore and have had many great conversations with people in the schools about how our English in the schools program makes an impact,” Burkhart says. “We know that the parents are the child’s first teacher and we know that when kids are not read to and don’t make a regular practice out of reading early on then they are going to fall behind in school. So that’s one of the real strong ways that we have an impact on reducing the achievement gap.”
A lot of people come to Literacy Network through word of mouth, Burkhart says. Literacy Network can be seen at events, forums, fairs, and fiestas throughout the community. “I honestly think that volunteering — tutoring — is one of the best things you can do with your time,” Burkhart says. “I started as a volunteer tutor myself years ago and I really enjoyed it.”
Burkhart has been executive director of Literacy Network for almost four years. “We see real, tangible impacts on people’s lives every day,” he says. “We have a real, tangible impact on people’s abilities to maintain their jobs, know more about their health care, support their kids and their education, and navigate the economy. That’s one of the things that I really like about my job.”
Because of Literacy Network's contributions to the community, Dane County has a better prepared workforce and a diverse, involved population. Adults are better equipped to succeed in the workplace, better understand health issues, and provide supportive environments for the education of their children. Partnerships with other area social service agencies help build even stronger community connections for the program participants.
“It’s always rewarding to see new students come through and they are a little bit scared but then they recognize that we are here to help and they get comfortable,” Burkhart said. “It’s great to see them achieve these great results. That’s what motivates us to keep doing what we do.”
Interested in volunteering? Tutor just a few hours every week, wherever and whenever is convenient for you. No teaching experience is needed —training and support are provided. For more information about Literacy Network, contact Executive Director Jeff Burkhart, (608)244-3911 or firstname.lastname@example.org.