Opinion

Stories of success through Madison's Literacy Network

Adult beneficiaries speak at fundraiser

You might think someone who has made his living for four decades writing stories for people to read would have embraced Madison’s Literacy Network (litnetwork.org) long ago.

Shame on me that it was only last month that I learned about the fine work this nonprofit organization, founded in 1974, is doing.

Maureen Miner, a work colleague of my wife, Jeanan, invited us to a Literacy Network event at the Radisson Hotel. Maureen is a longtime Literacy Network volunteer and currently serves as president of its board of directors.

The event Nov. 9 was a fundraiser and a chance to celebrate the success of some of the network’s “learners”—the adult students who learn reading, writing, communication and computer skills, often with one-on-one tutoring, from the Literacy Network’s staff and more than 900 volunteers.

As it happened, I was seated at a table with Phillip Morgan and Celia Gomez, two of the evening’s stars. They are Literacy Network learners who agreed to share their stories, knowing that taking the podium in front of more than 100 people can be daunting.

Celia’s son, Daniel Gomez, was giving her encouragement. Phillip’s teacher from Madison College—where Phillip is studying for his high school equivalency diploma—was there to support him.

Were they nervous? I was nervous, and all I had to do was sit and listen and try not to spill my wine.

Later, I had a chance to chat with Jeff Burkhart, who for the past decade has been executive director of the Literacy Network, which is located at 701 Dane Street.

It’s expansive new space—they moved in last fall—and a much-needed and much-appreciated boost for the organization, which had been making due with cramped quarters nearby on Park Street.

The new building is part of a $3-million fundraising campaign launched last year, a goal Burkhart says they expect to reach by mid 2018.

There is a great demand for their services. Some 55,000 adults in Dane County struggle with literacy. Burkhart says the Literacy Network served 1,196 Dane County residents in 2016.

The new headquarters came out of a conversation between Burkhart and Frank Byrne, the former president of St. Mary’s Hospital (he retired in 2015). St. Mary’s owned the building, and had a partnership with the Literacy Network—“English for Health,” which helps English language learners communicate with medical professionals—that dated to 2009. St. Mary’s sold them the building for less than half its appraised value.

“A great gift,” Burkhart says.

It should increase the Literacy Network’s visibility. And with visibility comes, well, consider the story of Corinne Ratsimihah, a native of Madagascar who moved to Madison in March 2010 with her husband and two children, ages 4 and 6.

Corinne was driving down Park Street one day and saw the Literacy Network’s sign touting “Free English Classes.”

“She came in,” Burkhart recalls. “She was very shy. She was very insecure about her English skills. But she dove right in and kept taking classes. She had a tutor. She took advantage of everything she possibly could.”

The tutor helped Corinne enroll in classes at Madison College, where she earned a certified nursing assistant certification. Her goal is to be a nurse and work at St. Mary’s. Nominated by Burkhart, Corinne in 2011 won the statewide “Outstanding Learner on a Career Pathway” award from Wisconsin Literacy (wisconsinliteracy.org).

The hardest part for Corinne was giving a speech in front of 500 people in Appleton.

Which brings us back to Nov. 9, and the event at the Radisson.

Eventually my tablemates, Phillip Morgan and Celia Gomez, were called up front to share their stories.

Phillip talked about working for his high school equivalency diploma, and how his instructor at Madison College had encouraged him to utilize a Literacy Network tutor to help with reading and writing.

“I jumped at the chance,” Phillip said.

“I’m 55 years old,” he continued. “I have worked as a truck driver all my life. My family likes the fact that I have returned to school to get my education.”

And this: “My 9-year-old granddaughter helps me with my homework and makes sure my homework is done.”

The audience cheered.

Celia said, “I feel more comfortable because I know more English.” She talked about working as an assembly person at Ultratec and how her improved English has helped in her job.

“This year,” Celia said, “I made my goal. I made my citizenship.”

More cheering. At our table, Celia’s son, Daniel, reached his hand out toward Jeanan and they exchanged a high-five. You could have hung the moon on his smile.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


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