Literacy Mid-South turns around fortunes under young director

Friday, Jul 06, 2012

Literacy Mid-South turns around fortunes under young director

Reprinted with permission from the Commercial Appeal
by Don Wade
June 17, 2012

For symbolism, there was the $13,000 copier that didn't work and the mushrooms that were literally growing out of the carpet in the front lobby.

For the sky-is-falling reality, there was the inescapable truth that the nonprofit agency's budget was in tatters.

"At one point, I thought I was on the Titanic," says Kevin Dean, who a year ago took over as executive director of Literacy Mid-South, located at 902 S. Cooper.

Despite a $250,000 loss in the 2010-11 fiscal year, Literacy Mid-South today not only remains afloat but has found seas smooth enough that, Dean says, "We will finish in the black this year."

Literacy Mid-South's fourth executive director in four years, Dean is in some ways an unlikely captain. He is 32 years old. He was a communications major in college with an emphasis in film and television.

Yet in just a year he has proven to have been the right choice. Claire Ryan, who is operations manager at BCD Travel, became a Literacy Mid-South board member as Dean was beginning his job there. She says Dean has exceeded expectations because he has been as capable at making tough, cost-cutting decisions internally as he has been at raising funds externally.

"He's an incredible fundraiser," Ryan says. "He's so deeply rooted in the nonprofit community in Memphis, even at such a young age."

Or, as Dean says, "If you have money, I've reached out to you."

The Plough Foundation provided a $200,000 three-year grant in late 2011 that Dean calls the "turning point." Then, in 2012, Literacy Mid-South received $35,000 from Hilton Worldwide; $23,000 from Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority; and $10,000 each from International Paper and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.

Dean left a "very stable job" as director of development at Hope House to accept the position at Literacy Mid-South.

"I was ready for a new challenge in my life," he said. "I have a lot of energy and passion, and I needed to be able to hone that energy into something positive. I saw the opportunity to change things at Literacy Mid-South."

In his first staff meeting, he had to tell employees that the agency was on the verge of insolvency and that layoffs were coming. When Dean informed the first staff person that she was losing her job, it was he who broke down and cried.

A staff of 14 soon became a staff of seven, and Dean caught himself wondering, "What I have gotten myself into. I've never done a turnaround before."

He determined the only way to navigate these uncharted waters was through hard work, creative thought, more hard work and a resolution that he simply wouldn't sleep for a year. His worst fear? The turnaround could not be made fast enough, and then an already big problem -- metro Memphis has 120,000 people reading at the fifth-grade level or below -- would become a gigantic problem.

By the time the 2011 holidays rolled around, the task was still daunting enough that Dean gave each staff member a small ceramic pig with wings -- "sort of a 'when pigs fly, we're gonna make it,'" says Adult Learning Program coordinator Vernetta Anderson, who has been at Literacy Mid-South for five years. "That was a little 'happy'; I put it on my desk."

Dean says focus groups had shown that staff, volunteers and students all felt a degree of stagnation. People were being taught to read, yes, but through an outdated model that was neither as practical nor as collaborative as needed.

Volunteers were retrained, and Donna Essary, a volunteer for the past two years, says the teaching is now "more student-centered. It's dealing more with real-life issues. They're learning to read with more purpose and meaning. So many people that come in, they want to be able to read to their children, read the Bible or drive a car."

Thus, there is much more focus on teaching adults to type and to learn technology (there is a new computer lab with wi-fi) so they can fill out online job applications.

"Being middle-aged, I understand the pressure of having to adjust to technology," Anderson adds.

For adults who can't read, adjusting to technology was a step they previously couldn't even imagine taking. Essary says she has been amazed by adults who managed to survive in jobs without being able to read. She has seen all the tricks of compensation people use, from saying they forgot their reading glasses -- "can you read this for me?" -- to covering their inability to read a street sign by saying to a stranger, "I'm new in town, can you give me directions?"

One woman in her 50s, Dean says, was working for $20 a day as a maid and paying a neighbor $50 a month to write her checks and pay her bills because she couldn't read. The neighbor started stealing from her, and she nearly lost her house.

Literacy Mid-South stepped in first to help her pay her bills -- the woman was too embarrassed to come to class. But eventually she did come and learn to read, and now she has a better job.

Going forward, Dean says they want to "find the literacy deserts in Memphis and focus on those areas. The first problem is people don't know how many people can't read in Memphis."

Or the problems that can result from it. Nationally, 60 percent of inmates in U.S. prisons read at or below a fifth-grade level.

Today, Literacy Mid-South is armed with a new mission statement and vision statement, has increased focus on adult literacy and the Smart Memphis Coalition (nonprofit agencies that provide education), has developed a new website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and has increased visibility through online newsletters.

In 2012, nearly 2,500 people have been served through its programs, 550 people this year through the Adult Learning Program.

"The funding community is more likely to give grants because it doesn't look like the agency is failing anymore," Ryan says.

In fact, Literacy Mid-South was able to avoid touching its reserve fund, which as of April of this year was valued at $309,000. The 20-member board has 12 new members, an advisory board is set to launch in July, and, as Anderson puts it, "there's a buzz about the place."

Dean sees it all leading toward an ever-expanding safe harbor, if you will, for those adults who can't read or can only barely read.

"It's really about teaching people how to survive in their own world," he says.