Since 1972, Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford (LVGH) has been building a community of literate adults through student-centered instruction that catalyzes career readiness and advancement. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Executive Director Stephen Morris to learn more.

NAN PRICE: How is this organization creating impact in the Hartford Region?

STEPHEN MORRIS: One of the best and most beautiful things about Hartford is the diversity of all the people who live here and come from all corners of the globe. However, when people come here from other countries—especially those who don’t speak English or come from countries where the education system is a bit different than ours—they often need some help. Our goal is to help them gain literacy skills and job skills.

NAN: Tell us a little about some of the services LVGH offers.

STEPHEN: Our biggest program is our English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). About 70% to 75% of our students are participating in that program. Our second biggest program is Basic Literacy, which is a program for native English speakers who want to get better at literacy, reading, and writing.

Along with our main classes, we also offer a pre-GED class for those who want to earn their General Educational Diploma (GED). We also offer a basic math class for those who want to brush up on their math skills. For those students looking to become U.S. citizens, we offer a Citizenship Prep course. Last year, we had 13 students gain their citizenship.

And then we have Career Pathways, which is an elective program for students who are ready to find a job. We help students build resumes, apply for jobs, and do mock interviews. Once a student is ready for a job, we contact our employer partners throughout the community to see if there are any openings that may be a good fit.

NAN: That’s a nice segue into workforce pipeline. You mentioned some community partners. Can you expand on that a little bit more?

STEPHEN: Career Pathways is such an important aspect of what we do—not just for us, but for our community. Our students want to learn literacy, but for many of them, their goal is to find employment. They struggle to get over some of the barriers, whether it’s technology, language, or just knowing the process to find and apply for jobs.

We’ve worked with different employer partners, including FedEx Ground and Sodexo, which is a food and facilities management company. Those employer partners are critical. Now that the job market is looking to hire more people, it’s made it easier to help find opportunities for our students.

NAN: Over the course of 50 years, how has the overall organization innovated and evolved?

STEPHEN: What started as a small group of volunteers helping a few dozen people in basic literacy has grown significantly over the last five decades. We now offer many different services to many more people throughout the Greater Hartford area. Last year, we worked with more than 500 students. This year, we anticipate returning to pre-pandemic levels of up to 700 students.

We’ve been here in Hartford for 50 years and are looking forward to the next 50 years of helping to shape an even stronger, more resilient, and fully literate community that benefits everyone.

We’ve evolved a lot through what our students need. We don’t just create programs because there’s funding; we’re building different programs because we know our students want those programs. Career Pathways is a great example.

For quite some time, we assumed that if someone has elevated literacy skills, they’re going to be able to find a job. But a lot of our students were still struggling. We sent them to different programs throughout the area that were doing more career readiness training and our students still weren’t having outcomes they wanted.

That’s because a lot of our students are probably at the third or fourth grade level or below. Our niche area is people on the lowest end of the literacy spectrum. A lot of other programs may require a GED or have a financial commitment or the program may be more outcome-driven with a timeline.

Our students are with us as long as they need us. Our program is self-paced. We know that people who are low literate usually take a little longer and need that reinforcement.

So, after a while we realized, if our students aren’t getting jobs based off of the community helping them, let’s just do it ourselves. That’s why, in 2016, we built our Career Pathways program. Since 2016, more than 200 participants in the program have found employment.

That’s the approach we’ve taken for other programs as well. We’ve built a digital literacy program because our students were struggling with computers.

The pandemic definitely changed our service model. The silver lining is that it kind of forced everybody, including our staff, to build up our digital skills. We didn’t used to do anything virtually and then, like most places, we pivoted to Zoom, so we were still able to work with our students in a virtual context. That’s enabled us to keep working with our students, keep our community going, and keep having good, positive outcomes for our students.

Many of our students are not only low literate, they’re also low income. Many don’t have technology at home. During the pandemic, we started investing in some laptops and computers, so those who don’t have access to computers or the internet at home could come to our facility and use our laptops to join their classes and job search. We tried to find a way to ensure that no one was left behind.

NAN: How can people become involved in the organization? Is anyone able to volunteer?

STEPHEN: Tutors must be over 18. You don’t have to have any teaching background or speak multiple languages. We have a volunteer training program that covers what it’s like to work with low literate adults and how to craft lesson plans that meet the students where they are.

Once you finish training, we have you do some student teaching, and then we assign you to a class. If you want to help highly motivated people from all over the world in a relaxed learning environment we would love to have you join us!

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