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Featured Grantee Partner: Literacy Connects

Interview Series: Transformational Grantmaking

What are three interesting things people don’t know about your organization?

We have almost 1,000 volunteers every year that help us do the work that we do. Sometimes people don’t realize the resources it takes to manage, coordinate, and engage volunteers.

People are surprised to know that we’re in so many places. We provide literacy programming at almost 150 sites around Tucson. In terms of how many books we give away to kids, last year between our Reach Out and Read and Reading Seed programs we gave out almost 90,000 books.

And finally, we are the primary recipients of the funds raised by the Tucson Festival of Books, receiving ⅔ of the profits from that event. We also provide them with a lot of volunteers.

What are you most excited about that’s happening at your organization?

We’re working on finishing the renovation of our building, 3,000 sq feet of which will become a youth arts center and performing arts space, and the home of our Stories that Soar program. We’ve currently raised about ¾ of what we need. We’re in the poorest neighborhood in Tucson, and when the facility is complete we’ll be able to offer a place for kids in the area to go after school that is constructive, and will get the kids engaged in finding their voice and acting it out. It will be an after-school program aimed at elementary school ages, with the goal of also having high school students act as mentors.

We’re proud to have a role in revitalizing this part of the neighborhood, of breathing new life. We’ve sold some of our land to Habitat for Humanity and they’ll be making homes. We have a Little Free Library out front and the books just disappear. The neighborhood association, the Woods Library nearby, and the Amphi School District have been strong partners.

How has a grant from the Women’s Foundation transformed your organization? Is there something you now do differently?

There have been multiple ways. First, the Women RISE program, which has been funded by a three-year grant from the Women’s Foundation, has strengthened our workplace-development program for second language learners. We’ve learned about the difficulty of the job market and the challenges that immigrants face even if they have exceptional skills. Being able to provide a place for immigrant and refugee women to learn and be prepared to go out and job search, and to be able to assist them, is something we’ve learned so much from.

And second, we’ve so appreciated the unrestricted operating grant from the WFSA as well as their understanding that infrastructure and other operating costs are critical to running a healthy organization.

To have both of these grant simultaneously have been extremely helpful. To have the WFSA really embrace Literacy Connects as an organization they want to continue to support is great. Particularly in education, it takes students years to achieve their goals. Adult language-learners or literacy-program learners have a long path. It’s really helpful to have a foundation say, “We appreciate your work and we’re going to support you.”

How has your organization grown stronger, increased its impact, or changed, because of your partnership with the Women’s Foundation?

Their emphasis on evaluation has strengthened the program. Particularly in the English Language Acquisition program, we don’t use standardized testing (nor do we in any of our programs), and are instead trying to come up with good, firm metrics for evaluation. With the assistance of the WFSA we’re honing in on some ways where we can do that in a valid and effective manner.

How did you first hear about the Women’s Foundation and their grants?

It might have been back when the Literacy for Life Coalition was first formed. It was being supported by the Community Foundation for Southern AZ, which is where the WFSA was housed at the time. The director of the coalition suggested we put together a collaborative project and approach the WFSA for funding. We did a women’s literacy project in the Sunnyside District, the Sunnyside Literacy Council, and it was very effective. We took women who had recently gotten their GEDs, trained them to be tutors, and connected them with other women who were studying to get their GEDs. The training they received was also something they could take home and use with their kids. It was very successful.

What keeps you up at night when thinking about your organization?

Money. Trying to figure out where we will get it from just to maintain current programs, let alone grow them, and our building. We have tremendously strong programs, and they’re very flexible. We can put the pieces and parts together in different ways, and there are always opportunities to meet new needs. For example, we’ve been invited by Safford K-8 Magnet School to put together a program for parents that will help them teach their kids. Prioritizing and trying to find the dollars for projects such as this is always a challenge.

What do you see ahead for women and girls in Southern Arizona?

There are certainly positive things happening in Tucson in terms of the economy and bringing in new businesses, and in that regard there should be some increased job opportunities. But with a legislature who does not believe in public education and will not fund it, for women and girls to have the skills and credentials they’re going to need in order to get those jobs, there’s a disconnect. This, along with women’s health issues and the quality of pay in this state are concerns that affect everybody.

And finally, is there anything else you would like to add about how the Women’s Foundation helps you in fulfilling the mission of your organization?

The other thing we really appreciate is that they really do want to support all women and girls, including those who are undocumented. The WFSA approach to funding a nonprofit is a partnership, not a hierarchy, and that’s very refreshing and the way it should be.

Betty Stauffer is the Executive Director of Literacy Connects, a Tucson-based nonprofit founded in July 2011 whose mission is to connect people of all ages to a world of opportunities through literacy and creative expression.

Special thanks to Women’s Foundation volunteers Gabriela Cervantes and Liz Levine for interviewing this organization and for serving as guest editors.