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Petaluma-based organization supports Adult literacy

Literacyworks, a national nonprofit based in Petaluma that helps low-income and low-literacy adults learn to read and write, is bringing high-profile authors - including Robert Reich, Isabel Allende and Daniel Ellsberg - to Sonoma County for a popular series of speaking engagements. The goal of the series is to raise funds for staff costs, while the authors’ goal is to sell new books.

So far, the strategy is working remarkably well.

The credit goes both to Copperfield’s Books, which has partnered with Literacyworks to amp up the two-year-old lecture series, and to the corporate sponsors of the series. Sponsors include the Codding Foundation, Fishman Supply, the Graton Rancheria, SRJC, Clover Sonoma, AT&T and North Bay Children’s Center.

The newest sponsor is Hansel Auto.

“Henry Hansel got it right away,” said Paul Heavenridge, executive director of Literacyworks. “He understands that the return on investment for improving the literacy of valued employees is huge.”

Am effective and trainable workforce, of course, is one that can read and write.

“When I talk to businessmen about adult literacy, I try to put it in a context that is meaningful to them,” Heavenridge said. “Fewer mistakes, less employee turnover, even fewer days off for sickness. This is all well-established and research-based.”

Literacyworks includes the Literacyworks Center, which coordinates services for adults who lack the basic skills to access career and technical education and find living-wage jobs. It helps them enroll in educational programs by providing scholarships, mentoring and counseling.

The Center also runs a program in Sonoma County to provide ongoing scholarships for ninety adult employees of sponsoring businesses. The employees attend Santa Rosa Junior College to become literate. To participate, they must be referred by their employer.

“We serve a fragile population, in the sense that they struggle with low income and poor literacy,” explained Heavenridge. “But scholarship recipients are also workers who have been identified by their employers as highly motivated to improve their lives.”

That high level of motivation, he added, is key to their success in the program.

“In this program, we focus on the persistence issue,” Heavenridge explained. “Our learners rarely drop out, but when they do it’s usually because of problems with money, work, transportation, childcare, or general support. Our drop-out rate over the past four years is less than 10 percent.”

This compares favorably with a 50-60 percent drop-out rate for at-risk (low-income and low-literacy) students throughout California’s community colleges.

There is, not surprisingly, a waiting list of people who would like to enroll in the program.

“We could double our enrollment if we had the funds,” Heavenridge said.

The scholarships are funded by a private family foundation, but staff costs must be covered through fund-raising efforts such as the speaker series. The series received a major boost this year when Copperfield’s Books co-owner Paul Jaffe agreed to partner with Literacyworks.

“With its ties to the publishing world and with its marketing strength, Copperfield’s has greatly strengthened our ability to both recruit well-known authors and to reach a wide audience,” said Heavenridge.

The first speaker, in 2016, was Peter Coyote, who now serves on the board of Literacyworks. Heavenridge revealed that one of Coyote’s passions is adult education. Also on the board is former Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, whose legacy as a 20-year veteran of Congress includes a strong focus on adult education. She helps reach out to potential speakers.

So far this year, the series is off to good start.

Steven Pinker, author of “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” drew a large crowd in March, as did an appearance by Leland Faust, author of “A Capitalist’s Lament: How Wall Street Is Fleecing You and Ruining America.” The next event will be a conversation between Robert Reich, author of “The Common Good,” and Woolsey.

The lecture series is also a platform for raising public awareness of the mission of Literacyworks.

“Every lecture has a ‘welcome message’ in which Chris Schultz, director of the Literacyworks Center, introduces a learner from the program who can testify to its benefits,” said Heavenridge.

In March, Literacyworks received a grant from the Redwood Credit Union Community Fund to help learners in the program whose lives were impacted by the October fires. The grant will enable learners to stay in school at SRJC by providing funding for transportation and childcare.

“The October fires made things worse for many of our learners,” Heavenridge said. “Fortunately, the Redwood Credit Union has awarded us a grant to help address some of the problems related to the fires.”

The agency will also use the grant for additional workshops in stress management, financial planning, community resources and resource navigation, parenting around trauma, time management, and study skills.

Raised in Michigan and trained as a marriage and family therapist, Heavenridge found his calling in adult literacy when working as a therapist with disabled adults. While he now preaches a direct link between worker literacy and economic growth, he also sees a clear connection between literacy and a strong democracy. To vote, people need to be able to read well enough to understand the issues.

“Those with low literacy are often reluctant to vote,” he said, “because they don’t know what’s at stake.”