A BRIEF HISTORY OF LITERACY KC*
AUGUST, 2016

Literacy KC began as a dream and grew out of a passion to help people. In 1985, a group of volunteers led by Catherine Mathews perceived a need and created a tiny organization to provide literacy tutoring for adults. They had become aware of several adults that struggled with literacy skills and felt that there was an answer to help them gain new skills and improve on the limited skills that they had. With a handful of students, Catherine embarked on a new journey by negotiating the use of a portion of the basement of Country Club Congregational Church located at 205 West 64th Street, Kansas City, Missouri. She identified several individuals willing to volunteer their time and affiliated with the National Laubach Literacy Council to start a literacy tutoring program for adults. The affiliation with Laubach provided the organization access to curriculum and materials. The program was first called Kansas City Laubach Literacy Council.

For several years, the program was operated with an all-volunteer staff. As the program grew in numbers and funding was secured, an Executive Director was hired.

The Literacy KC Computer Lab in 2001

There have been six Executive Directors and three Interim Executive Directors for Literacy KC:

Kathy Dawson – 1996-1997
Brad Harris – 1998-2004
Diane Daldrup – 2004-2006
Mona Carmack (Interim) – 2006-2007

Mark Bertrand – 2007
Cliff Schiappa (Interim) – 2008
Mark Bertrand – 2008-2011

Lynn Brown (Interim) – 2011-2012
Carrie Coogan –2012-2015
Gillian Helm – 2015-present

BENCHMARKS:

1994: First Annual Corporate Spelling Bee. The Corporate Spelling Bee, which remains a significant source of fund raising for Literacy KC, brings teams from corporations in the Kansas City area together to compete in a live spelling bee. They pay a significant entry fee and many bring “cheer squads” to compete for the spirit award. During the Bee, silent and live auctions are held. All proceeds go directly toward support of Literacy KC’s general operating expenses.

1996: A three-year, six-figure grant was secured from the Courtney S. Turner Trust with 1998 being the final year of the grant. The first Executive Director was hired, as well as a full-time Program Coordinator.

Circa 2000: The Literacy Works program was established. The impetus of the program was for Literacy KC to work directly with corporations to place a literacy tutoring skills program on site at the corporation. The rationale for the program was that increased literacy skills could increase productivity and reduce turnover for the company. The strongest partnership was with Truman Hospital. However, there were two factors that led to the eventual discontinuation of the program: first, many people were reluctant to come to this “volunteer” tutoring program at their place of work because of the stigma associated with an inability to read. Second, the hospital eventually revised their hiring practices to require a high school diploma and evidence of ability to read, which nearly eliminated the potential student base on site. The program continued until approximately 2007, with numbers dwindling.

2006: Office relocated to 211 W. Armour Boulevard. It is significant to note that at the time of the move, the organization was paying $1,000 per month in rent to the church and the new monthly expense would be approximately $5,000. The board approved the move based on information that $50,000 had been raised to support the move. However, all of the needed financing was not actually available to Literacy KC and the increased expenditure quickly began to prove a challenge. This appears to be a starting point for the financial struggle that Literacy KC faced for the next several years. By the end of 2006, the board was called on to make a cash infusion to make payroll.

Profile for Literacy KC service recipients in 2006:
• 59% female, 41% male
• 26% below age of 29, 46% aged 30-49
• 65% African American, 7% Asian, 6% Hispanic, 22% Caucasian
• 55% with less than a 12th grade education and 45% with a diploma, GED, or some college education
• 54% employed, 17% unemployed, 18% receiving disability or public assistance and 6% retired

2008: Near demise. In the summer, Interim Director Cliff Schiappa and Board President Mark Schweizer called a meeting to discuss the current standing of the organization. In the year prior, board members had pitched in financially in order to keep the doors open and to be able to continue paying staff. The Bee, although successful in its own right, was not enough to fund the programs and other funding was not coming in as anticipated. Literacy KC was facing another financial crisis. At the meeting, a former board member raised the issue of “personal financial debt” that individual board members would be responsible for if the organization remained in the financial situation and the doors were closed. As there was no apparent “relief” in sight at that time, the discussion of possibly closing the doors of Literacy KC ensued. A handful of board members were almost ready to do so, however there was not enough agreement to go ahead with this drastic measure.

Earlier that year, Interim Director Cliff Schiappa had crafted a grant proposal for the Human Foundation. It was shortly after the above mentioned meeting that it was learned the organization was a finalist for this potential $100,000 grant. In the end Literacy KC did not win the overall grant, but as one of the three organizations among the finalists, received $10,000. This money was enough of a “shot in the arm” to keep the board motivated to move forward.

As a result of the discussion on board member personal financial responsibility, board member Kelly Sullivan crafted a document on Fiduciary Responsibility which remains an important part of the board’s policy handbook. A strategic planning session was held in the Fall of 2008 and the board began having discussions that centered around the question, “Are we still relevant as an organization and, if so, how can we find a funding stream?” A new strategic plan was crafted.

Fall 2008 – 2011: Mark Bertrand returned for a second stint as Executive Director. Staff was realigned to the following: Executive Director, Full-time Program Manager, Open Doors Coordinator, Part-time Tutor Trainer, Part-time Volunteer Coordinator, Operations Manager, Marketing/Communications Specialist [Note: titles may not be exact.] The first Open Doors grant was developed and the program was funded.

2010: Contact was made with the Metropolitan Community College – Penn Valley. A trial student tutoring program began on campus, with the college providing the space and Literacy KC providing a classroom, instructor, and volunteer tutors. Literacy KC was provided no funding from MCC-Penn Valley for the program at this time.

Fall 2011: Formal start of the GEARS program at MCC-Penn Valley. Gillian Ford was hired as the GEARS Coordinator. During that year, the student identification process was honed and the classroom/tutoring process was fine tuned. Mark Bertrand resigned and Interim Director Lynn Brown was hired to help with the day to day at the office. Finances remained a significant issue and board members again infused personal money at the end of the year to ensure bills and payrolls were paid. During the strategic planning process, the board discussed the organization’s significant financial needs, the large number of adults needing the organization’s services, and the unwanted tag that our organization was the “best kept secret in Kansas City.”

2012: New Executive Director, Carrie Coogan, was hired, and Gillian Ford Helm became Director of Programs. During the next year and a half (among many other changes), the organization’s accounting was contracted to Support KC, the lease was renegotiated, and employee health insurance bid out. Carrie and Gillian together reorganized every aspect of Literacy KC’s operations, making each process more efficient and paying significant attention to discovering “what works” for our students. Through research into adult literacy and reading acquisition, coupled with the success of the GEARS classroom-based program and in-depth analysis on the shortcomings of the one-to-one model, it was determined that a program overhaul was necessary in the evolution of Literacy KC programming if the organization wanted to truly increase numbers served, improve student progress, prove effectiveness, and affect change in our community.

A significant multi-year grant was won from the William T. Kemper Foundation that was the vote of confidence needed in order to leverage dollars from other funding sources in support of the program changes. The next two years brought research, a thoughtful education of Literacy KC supporters on the coming changes, internal administrative improvements, and an infusion of energy and community support into the renewed Literacy KC.

2013: Focus began to zero in on data, outcomes, and program effectiveness. We began a paperless conversion project, along with a data consolidation project that migrated all data into a single database and allowed valid recording and reporting.

Priorities continued to be internal stability and capacity building, and the beginning of the Literacy KC AmeriCorps VISTA program (through CNCS) supported these efforts through the addition of full-time cost-effective staff members.

2014: Literacy KC launched The Impact Initiative. This was a communications and identity effort to do a number of things: First, the continued diversification of student programming; second, to raise awareness about adult literacy and the visibility of Literacy KC; third, to work with community partners to leverage resources and broaden reach; fourth, to continue to build a strong infrastructure; and finally, to work with our constituents toward a paradigm shift away from one-to-one tutoring toward a classroom-based, instructor-led, tutor-supported, and community-based model called Ticket to Read. 2014 also saw the launch of our Let’s Read Family Reading Program and a major investment from United Way in the form of a substantial multi-year grant.

2015: Launch of the Ticket to Read program model. This community literacy model achieved a number of things that Literacy KC had been struggling with: It gave tutors and students a peer group, reinforcing the benefits of social and peer-to-peer learning; it provided relevant, dynamic, and appropriate curriculum; students access academically and geographically appropriate classes; and achieved strong outcomes through trackable metrics.

This year, our first Fund Development Manager was hired, and this investment brought exponentially valuable returns. We won the UMB Big Bash award, along with our second multi-year William T. Kemper investment. Partnerships included the Kansas City Public Library, Mid-Continent Public Library, Kansas City Parks & Recreation, Kansas City Public Schools, and more. We also became founding members of the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Coalition, and launched Career Online High School program, a nationally unique partnership with Mid-Continent Public Library and Kansas City Public Library that offers students the convenience of an online platform to earn a fully accredited high school diploma with an attached career certificate.

To mark the organization’s complete transformation and herald in the new era of Literacy KC, the organization began a rebranding process, which also coincided with the 30th year of incorporation of the original Literacy Kansas City.

At the 2016 Spelling Bee, the new and improved Literacy KC was revealed. The new logo highlights both the different facets of literacy – reading, writing, math, and digital skills – while representing the diverse community that plays a crucial role in building a legacy of literacy in our community and changing lives beyond words. The open doors invite you in as a student or supporter, and the books represent the boundless information and opportunities available through literacy. The organization’s name was shortened from Literacy Kansas City to Literacy KC.

*This is not meant to be an exhaustive, all-inclusive history of the organization, but rather an overview of some of the major events during the life span of Literacy KC.