Motheread works to boost literacy for adults, kids

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In 1987, Nancye Gaj, an administrator for the N.C. Community College System who had taught basic skills to adults, concluded that wanting to read the Bible and read to their children typically were two of the main reasons illiterate adults wanted to learn to read, but that adult literacy programs typically were designed to prepare adults only for the world of work.

So she founded Motheread, a Raleigh nonprofit that aimed to teach adults to read based on why they wanted to read.

“There are very few people now who can’t read anything, but there are many people who cannot read well enough to succeed in school or work or even well enough to reach their family goals, and there are lots of people who don’t see a reason to read,” says Carolyn Dickens, who has worked at Motheread since it was founded and has served as its executive director since 2011.

“So we use the power of the story, whatever that story is, to reach people so they want to improve, they see a reason,” she said.

Motheread initially received federal funds through the state Department of Cultural Resources to provide a literacy class for mothers serving time at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.

That class soon was the focus of a televised report by CBS Sunday Morning that in turn attracted requests for training from adult-literacy providers in Florida and Vermont.

Today, operating with an annual budget of $600,000 and a staff of 14 people, Motheread provides direct literacy services in Wake County. It also offers nine curricula it has developed to improve the literacy skills or practices of parents, literacy providers and child-care providers, or help people obtain citizenship or improve their work skills. And it trains groups to use those curricula.

Motheread has trained thousands of people in over 30 states, and in Guam and the Mariana Islands, to use its curricula.

And it has formed a broad range of partnerships that provide literacy services to adults and children, and literacy training for groups that provide those services.

It partners with the Wake County Public School System, Wake County Human Services and SAFEchild to provide literacy skills for mothers and fathers.

It partners with the N.C. Department of Community Colleges to provide adult literacy classes, mainly in English as a second language, at United Methodist Church in Cary and Apex United Methodist Church.

As part of Wake Up and Read, a collaboration with the Wake County public schools and other nonprofits, it has offered nearly 20 workshops at churches and Head Start programs for over 100 parents of pre-schoolers, and supported a book drive that collected 80,000 books for children to read over the summer.

In partnership with the Wake County Smart Start, it is working to help 100 child-care providers in Wake County improve their literacy practices.

In partnership with Meredith College, it trained 90 college students last year to work with elementary school students in Wake County.

And as a partner in the “Transformation Zone,” a federally funded collaborative program that is preparing children in Chowan, Bertie, Beaufort and Hyde counties in eastern North Carolina to enter kindergarten, Motheread is providing training and support to help personnel who work with adults or as child-care providers improve their own literacy practices.

With revenue from training and delivery of services generating nearly all its budget, and donations accounting for only one percent to two percent, Motheread is looking for ways to boost private support. It recently received a $40,000 grant from GlaxoSmithKline.

“We want to reach more parents with that money,” Dickens says. “We want to help parents improve their skills so they can help their children. The role of the parent cannot be overstated.”

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