CLC adapts to new building, challenges of COVID-19

CN+R STAFF REPORTS
Posted 10/14/20

This week, we speak with Vicki Newell, executive director of the Chatham Literacy Council, about the organization’s recent fundraising event and COVID-directed changes in operation. Newell has …

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CLC adapts to new building, challenges of COVID-19

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This week, we speak with Vicki Newell, executive director of the Chatham Literacy Council, about the organization’s recent fundraising event and COVID-directed changes in operation. Newell has worked as the executive director for nine of her 10 years with Chatham Literacy. Before that, she worked in early childhood development with local and statewide Smart Start initiatives. All told, she has 32 years working in the nonprofit world, having started that journey as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Newell hails from the state of Utah and has lived in Chatham County since 2003 with her husband and three sons.

Among the myriad of other things COVID has upended was your annual fundraiser, which in the past has featured an author at an in-person event; those events were always big hits. For 2020, Chatham Literacy’s “No Show” event and raffle just passed — how’d it go?

Actually, our “No Show Fall for Literacy Book Event” was incredible! Because of COVID-19 our volunteers and staff worked even harder to simply re-imagine this fundraiser, and it ended up attracting 85 participants, 8 sponsors and raised just over $15,000! This money will help us to continue providing essential literacy services, during this challenging time, to adults who live or work in Chatham County.

We so appreciate the community response to this event, and that certainly includes Chatham Literacy sponsors. Right now their financial support is helping adults find better jobs and improve their work skills. So that’s why we want to give a shout out to the event’s eight sponsors:

Platinum Sponsor: Mountaire

Gold Sponsors: Galloway Ridge at Fearrington, Wren Foundation

Silver Sponsors: Carolina Meadows Retirement Community, Restoration Systems

Bronze Sponsors: Chatham Park, Edward Jones/Eric Williams, Reynolds & Associates Physical Therapy

The event was about funding (and fun), but let’s talk about the funding part. As a nonprofit, how has Chatham Literacy been affected financially by the pandemic and how are things looking as we all work to emerge from this?

Funding is definitely tight right now. We have a couple of grantors who were not able to help us financially this year due to the effects of COVID-19. We anticipate that gifts from some of our donors will also be reduced, for the same reason.

Receiving a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan this spring has really helped. We remain strong as an organization even though we expect COVID-19 to continue impacting Chatham Literacy funding, as well as that of our adult learners, into next year. Financial insecurity is a reality for individuals with limited literacy skills and their situations are even more challenging during this pandemic.

That’s why literacy is vitally important for our community. Literacy is a foundation for economic, education and health sustainability in a community. Literacy skills help enable people to learn about resources, including COVID-19’s spread into their own community and workplace. Literacy skills also help local residents find jobs that pay a livable wage and locate the protection that legal assistance provides. Without literacy skills it is so much harder for people to find affordable housing. Being literate in English also allows parents to be much more involved in their children’s school work.

Because we see the impact our programs have in the community, our staff and Board of Directors are more dedicated than ever in finding new and innovative funding opportunities in the coming months.

What has your work consisted of these last few months, and as we move through Gov. Cooper’s phases, how it is changing?

In March we transitioned our tutoring services to distance learning. We are pleased that 39% of our adult learners and 28% of our volunteer tutors made this move with us. Many of these learners and their tutors are currently participating in remote instruction. Another option for learners is the use of a digital learning app that allows participants more flexibility in when they can study.

On Sept. 1, staff went back to the office on a staggered schedule, working a couple days in the office and a couple days from home. We will phase in face-to-face tutoring starting the week of Nov. 2 with several tutor teams starting back. Of course we’ll review how face-to-face service delivery is going as well as what the COVID-19 trends are in Chatham County. We will always follow recommendations from the Chatham County Health Department and Gov. Cooper to determine how we start program services for 2021.

Learning from a distance is currently our “new reality” and Chatham Literacy will continue to provide literacy services through remote instruction and the digital learning app in the months to come. As we re-introduce face-to-face instruction, this new blended model of instruction might allow us to better serve adult learners in outlying areas of Chatham County and allow adults to immediately start learning once they register with Chatham Literacy, avoiding the potential of a waiting list.

“Remote instruction” is something we all know something about. You’re using it for tutoring — tell us about that.

The biggest part of remote instruction is maintaining a relationship and being there for our learners. In a time of so much uncertainty, it’s comforting and encouraging to know something and someone is there for you. That’s why Chatham Literacy tutors rock! They were able to immediately adapt to the impact COVID-19 had on their volunteer efforts.

Of the 27 tutors who are participating in remote instruction, the majority are doing so using Zoom as their teaching platform. We also have tutors using social media programs like Facebook Messenger, Google Duo, WhatsApp and Skype. When technology seems to interrupt more than help, tutoring teams have switched to using FaceTime on their smart phones. And even we have a handful of tutors who have gone “old-school,” sending worksheets back and forth through the mail, reading and discussing a book back and forth over the phone with their students and even writing letters to each other.

For our learners who have internet, but no computer, we have provided them with a free refurbished laptop and technical support. Our goal is to hopefully lessen the digital divide while also helping adults learn English or basic literacy skills to prepare them for the citizenship test, a GED exam, or to enhance their job skills. In spite of the tremendous impacts of COVID-19 on our lives this past spring, Chatham Literacy helped four of our citizenship students become U.S. citizens. This last month, we helped four more apply for their citizenship interview!

For your adult learners, you’ve introduced using a digital learning application. How has that worked, and what all are you offering?

In the fall 2019, program staff attended a national adult literacy conference in which an award winning digital learning app was introduced. At that time, my thought was that an app might work in some places, but not necessarily here in Chatham County. But once COVID-19 started impacting our program, we applied for a free trial to test drive this digital app.

And that experience has been great. It’s like binge-learning. This digital app was created so it operates much like a game, which really engaged people from the start. Learners can access this app from a computer as well as from their phone which allows them to participate in literacy programming even if they do not have internet in their homes.

We have introduced two different apps, one is the Learning Upgrade and one is Voxy. Both of these allow for learners to self-pace their lessons and learn when it is convenient for them, whether for ten minutes or for an hour. The focus of the Learning Upgrade is English for Speakers of Other Languages, basic literacy, math and digital literacy. For Voxy, the focus is on English, math, citizenship preparation, current events and identified areas of interest.

Learners can use these digital apps wherever they can use their phones, so it makes learning the “go-to” activity when faced with down time.

We are now getting more tutors engaged with the digital apps. Tutors can review their students’ work behind the scenes, and then provide them with supplemental instruction around areas of need.

And finally … tell us about your new office …

During the very start of this pandemic we found out that we had to move our offices — within 20 days! Rather than panic, staff and volunteers fanned out and found a wonderful opportunity for us in Siler City right across the street from the old Chatham Hospital at 1002 West Third St.

Fortunately these offices are spacious and are centrally located to serve the 61% of our adult learners who live in Siler City and are within walking distance of two new affordable housing apartment buildings now under construction.

Our new building includes Chatham Literacy’s staff offices, tutoring rooms, and conference room and lobby. Fortunately, we have much more room for student study and learning, as well as access the internet. Our office building also includes spaces for Chatham Habitat for Humanity, and we are delighted they will continue to share our location.

We all look forward to the day when we can have an open house and show off our new digs!

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