“Literacy,” said former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, “is the bridge from misery to hope.”

The Literacy Council of Southwestern PA is a nonprofit gem that, for more than 3½ decades has given hope to – and transformed the lives of – people in Washington County by improving their reading skills.

The literacy council offers adult basic education classes that provide instruction in reading, writing, and math, along with GED tutoring.

The council also provides free English as a Second Language classes to help local immigrants gain the language skills they need to find jobs and to get involved with their communities. It also offers a children’s literacy program.

Additionally, the literacy council operates a children’s literacy program and has distributed more than 26,000 book bags and books at WHS Washington Hospital through the “Mommy and Me Baby Book Bag” program, which encourages new mothers to begin reading with their infants soon after birth to promote childhood literacy.

The literacy council relies heavily on its trained tutors, who are vital cogs in providing the gift of reading to students. It is seeking volunteers.

The nonprofit also depends on donors to support its mission, and is grateful for donations.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic the literacy council immediately pivoted to meet the needs of students.

Thanks to two sizable grants provided by the Washington County Community Foundation, the literacy council purchased Chromebooks and MIFIs and began teaching classes remotely via Zoom.

In addition, the council used the second WCCF grant to start a Student Emergency Relief Fund to assist immigrant students by purchasing grocery cards, gas cards, and gift cards to help students pay for utilities and other expenses.

While the number of students enrolled in classes has more than doubled – and nearly tripled – due to remote learning, the number of tutors, a vast majority of whom are retired seniors, has declined.

“We’ve not only stayed relevant during the pandemic, but we’ve reached a larger population of people in need, but the tutor pool has gone down. There aren’t enough to deal with record enrollment,” said executive director Brandi Miller.

Zoom has been a game-changer, allowing some tutors to host classes from their homes in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Typically, the literacy council has around 50 tutors, with around 35 active, but they are down to about 25, while student enrollment in the ESL and GED programs has ballooned to 240.

The council is expanding on-site services into the Mon Valley, Canonsburg, and Chartiers-Houston areas, in addition to helping students find solutions to unemployment and other issues.

It provides Zoom and in-person literacy classes seven days a week.

The literacy council has provided services to immigrants from 56 countries, and has helped students obtain U.S. citizenship.

“As a volunteer, I know that I become part of their American journey, their American story,” said Kris Drach, a tutor and board president. “I love that I am able to be that in someone’s life. They’re the most wonderful people ... what we do is so much more than teaching someone English.”

Miller echoed Drach’s thoughts.

“We’re the fortunate ones, to be a part of their experience. I’m so grateful for what I do and what we do here,” said Miller. “Our whole program, we could not do it without volunteers.”

For information on the Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania, or to donate or to volunteer, visit the website at lcswpa.org.

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