Changing Lives Beyond Words For Over 30 Years

Changing Lives Beyond Words For Over 30 Years

For over thirty years Literacy KC has had the privilege of helping hard-working Kansas Citians improve their literacy skills.  Thirty years is a long time, and we don’t always realize how many people our work has affected.  But, sometimes we’ll be out and about and run into a person who shares with us the story of how Literacy KC left a mark upon his or her life.

The people we reach aren’t always students, or tutors, or volunteers.  Sometimes we reach people in a peripheral way, and that’s the case with Debra Skodack. Last week we met Debra at the grand opening of the Northeast Community Center. These days, Debra is doing fantastic work with the United Way of Greater Kansas City, but when she ran across Literacy KC the first time, she was working as a reporter for the Kansas City Star.  Debra told us she had written a piece on Literacy KC years ago. She clearly remembered, and was impressed by, the determination of our students and tutors.

We dug into the Star’s archives and found Debra’s story.  It turns out after ten years Debra’s piece is just as relevant now as it was then.  Sure, a few of the statistics may have changed and our teaching methods now focus on building a student community in a classroom setting—but at the heart of everything we do are the hardworking students, tutors, and teachers coming together “word by word.”

Here’s Debra’s article in its entirety, as printed in The Kansas City Star on September 29, 2007:

DEBRA SKODACK Good Connections: Literacy lessons help make KC man a role model to grandchildren

Lucian Colbert sat at the desk — 37 years after getting his high school diploma — and learned how to spell the word “spark” and how to read the word “society.”

Colbert is one of about 130 adults learning to read through Literacy Kansas City with the help of about 140 volunteer tutors. Side by side and word by word, student and tutor diligently work three hours a week to open the world of reading.

“Every time I read, it makes me see what I have been missing,” said Colbert, a 56-year-old Kansas Citian.

On this particular afternoon, Colbert read a speech by Chief Joseph and pages from Jack London’s White Fang. His reading ability is about that of a fifth-grader.

Four years ago, Colbert wouldn’t step inside a voting booth, afraid he’d punch the wrong spot on a ballot.

Like an estimated one-third of Literacy Kansas City participants, Colbert has a high school diploma.

Not long after graduation, Colbert went to work for Armco Steel, where his grandfather, father and uncle worked. Colbert excelled and became an overhead-crane operator. He was earning $45,000 in 1983 — the year he was laid off. Colbert found jobs with the city of Kansas City, first cleaning tanks for the Water Department, and then filling potholes and removing snow for Public Works.

Colbert, the father of four daughters, knew the big obstacle to his dream of getting a better-paying job as a truck driver: He would have to read to take a test.

In 1992 Colbert’s wife, Charlene, suggested he get help. Colbert’s tutor at Literacy Kansas City used the truck-driving school’s test manual for lessons. Colbert passed and was hired by Transport America.

In January 2005, Colbert was struck head-on by another motorist. The gash on his head required 14 stitches and 28 staples, and he was laid up for months with neck and back injuries. Once again, he thought about the need to improve his reading.

“I didn’t know if I could drive a truck again,” Colbert said.

He did mend and did return, not only to his job at Transport America but also to Literacy Kansas City, where he began working with tutor Gaylon Umbarger.

Twice a week Colbert gets to work at 3:30 a.m. so he can finish his 12-hour shifts in time for tutoring.

Parts of learning how to read — like putting vowels together for a sound — are difficult, Colbert said.

“I tell myself I have to do it,” he said. “I think about all that I missed out on. I don’t want to miss out now.”

Umbarger admires what Colbert has become in the eyes of his 10 grandchildren.

“He is a great role model, doing homework in front of them and showing them that education is important,” Umbarger said.

That doesn’t mean Colbert hasn’t been caught off guard, like the time he was reading a book to a grandson. Colbert was unaware that he had heard it numerous times.

Colbert came upon words he didn’t know.

“I skipped over them and put something in to make it sound good,” Colbert said. “Then my grandson said: ‘Papa, Grandma doesn’t read it like that. You put something in there.’ “

Nowadays it’ s different.

“We read books together,” Colbert said, “and he is helping me out with some of the words.”

Umbarger said the students inspired him.

“You see changes in self-esteem, in employment, in helping their kids, and they are more engaged citizens,” he said.

And there are moments like the one at a 1993 literacy conference in Washington, where Umbarger and some students visited the Lincoln Memorial.

“That was a really great experience to be helping the guys read the inscription.”

** For more information about Literacy Kansas City, call 816-333-9332 or go to

Copyright (c) 2007 The Kansas City Star

By | 2017-02-21T20:57:10+00:00 February 23rd, 2017|About Literacy KC, Student Stories, Tutor Testimonials, Understanding Adult Literacy|Comments Off on Changing Lives Beyond Words For Over 30 Years

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Literacy KC is a nonprofit organization that helps adults in the Kansas City metropolitan area improve their reading, writing, math & digital skills.