CH@T: From reading to life skills, Newell’s group promotes literacy and learning

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Throughout the pandemic, Chatham Literacy’s staff and volunteer tutors continued to provide literacy services and support help residents gain a variety of life skills. This week, we speak with Vicki Newell about their work and about the organization’s upcoming fall fundraising event.

It’s Newell’s 10-year anniversary as the executive director of Chatham County Literacy Council, more commonly known now as Chatham Literacy. While staying home for six years to raise her three sons, she volunteered on the boards of Family Violence and Rape Crisis Services and the PTA of Pittsboro Elementary School. Newell has a master’s degree in health communication from Johns Hopkins University and worked for six years with the Smart Start Initiative as the health specialist at the state level and as a program director at the Chatham County level.

A former member of the Peace Corps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she speaks French and Tshiluba (with a lot of effort). You can reach her at 919-742-0578 or at

We’re in our second year of COVID — how has the pandemic continued to impact your work and your ability to promote literacy in the community?

We are proud of the resiliency in our learners; more than 60% of our adult learners made the transition to distance learning over the past two years. This past June, we began the transition of moving tutoring teams from online learning or from their waiting status, throughout the pandemic, to in-person tutoring. We’re also embracing those who want to continue with distance learning or participate in a hybrid model, combining both in-person and online tutoring.

We are excited to see tutors and learners again in our office! While we still have more learners to contact, we already have 86 adult learners and 33 tutors meeting face to face for tutoring in basic reading, writing, and math; GED preparation; ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and citizenship preparation.

We learned that offering distance learning this past year actually expanded our community outreach because we were able to serve those who otherwise could not have taken classes. Our online services provided flexibility for learners balancing busy schedules with families and work.

We witnessed that participation in distance learning last year kept our learners from being left behind because they continued to use the skills they had gained with our programs. Similar to students who experience a summer slide when they do not read over summer break, the pandemic in many cases created an almost two-year gap for adult learners who put their learning on hold.

Our “distance learners” improved their digital literacy skills, resulting in more county residents able to navigate public support systems because many of these systems also shifted to online applications and appointments. We equipped 50 distance learners with laptops, helped them learn how to use a computer, how to use email to communicate with their tutors and how to use Zoom as a learning platform. I think throughout this process we kept literacy relevant for our community and learners.

Can you talk about the kind of feedback you get from your clients about your work?

It was difficult for everyone when we initially stopped classes and then transitioned to remote instruction. The learning started first with our staff since we did not know how to provide services online. We quickly learned Zoom and then asked tutors and learners to join us.

It was unanimous that learners and tutors missed seeing each other. Learners were very grateful for their continued studies and their ability to stay connected with their tutor as a teacher and a friend. In fact, many tutors and adult learners told us their work together inspired each other! Many also said they were thankful to have the flexibility and convenience provided by online learning for themselves and their families.

This ease of service meant that learners no longer had to drive to class and could just log on to Zoom to take class from anywhere. This convenience allowed them to continue learning since many were struggling with a lack of transportation and child care during the pandemic.

Continued tutoring spelled the difference in quality of life as well as offered practical help. Some learners told us that uninterrupted tutoring improved their job skills sooner than expected. For instance, some were finally able to communicate much better with their bosses and thus their effectiveness on the job; some were able to start getting more involved in their children’s schoolwork; others mentioned it was easier for them to negotiate other things in the community like signing contracts and using banking services.

At Chatham Literacy we’re all excited for this new era of learning! Who knows what the future will hold? Post-pandemic, or should we say midst-pandemic, the only constant is change.

September is recognized as National Literacy Month. Why is literacy of such importance to our community?

Literacy is essential for human development. It equips and then transforms lives, in turn improving the standard of living for whole communities.

Recognizing this need to help our community is how Chatham Literacy was started. In 2006 Chatham, resident Bonnie Bechard volunteered as a local poll worker. During the election she witnessed a significant number of voters simply struggling to read the ballot. Researching this problem, she was surprised that nationally a significant percentage of adults over 24 years could only read at a 4th-grade level — considered functional illiteracy. Bonnie then helped create the Chatham Literacy operating today.

You can be a significant helper, too. Operating under the focus of advancing literacy one person at a time, Chatham Literacy asks that you embrace the literacy challenge listed below. Just like Bonnie, anyone in Chatham can improve literacy in our community, especially during National Literacy Month, by doing at least one thing on the following “literacy challenge list”:

• Become a Chatham Literacy tutor

• Join one of our committees

• Become a board member

• Share on social media about the importance of literacy

• Tell two people about Chatham Literacy

• Support our “change4change” coin box promotion scattered at local businesses because rounding up at the register can add up to big change

• Attend our October 9th “Fall for Literacy” luncheon

• Become an annual or sustaining donor

• And, of course, read a book to a little person in your life!

The lack of literacy skills is a global issue. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics encourages local literacy intervention worldwide. Its latest report says about 800 million adults, two-thirds of whom are women, lack minimum literacy skills. Also, over 60 million children worldwide can’t get go to school, attend sporadically, or simply drop out.

In general, literacy is about being able to understand and process, make informed decisions and communicate as an advocate for yourself and others — all of that is literacy!

The guest author at your October 9th Fall for Literacy Event, Cassandra King Conroy, was not only married to leading author of 20th century southern literature, Pat Conroy. Her own writing has garnered significant recognition. Tell us more about why this author has joined Chatham Literacy for this event?

Cassandra feels so strongly about literacy that this appearance is the second time she has tried to support our program. She was to headline our spring author event in 2020, canceled by COVID-19. She jumped at the chance to support the cause of literacy by saying yes, for a second time, to our fall 2021 fundraiser. She is known for her humor and honesty and will discuss the power or storytelling. We look forward to her words about her life with her husband during their 18 years together.

Both Conroys taught and supported numerous literacy efforts in their hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina. Following Mr. Conroy’s death from cancer, the Pat Conroy Literary Center was established and dedicated to her husband’s legacy. The center is designated a Literary Landmark by the American Library Association and recognized as an affiliate by the American Writers Museum.

Cassandra says she and her husband felt strongly that literacy is a fundamental need because it enriches lives and has the power to change them. She said her husband spoke and wrote continually about educational efforts that failed to provide even basic needs for many students.

Cassandra is the author of five novels and was recently awarded the 2020 Southern Book Prize Winner for nonfiction for her latest work, “Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy.”

We look forward to hearing about her literacy efforts and literary life with her husband and expect a wonderful and thoughtful program. Mrs. Conroy will sign copies of her books and 20% of the purchase proceeds of her books at the event will be donated to Chatham Literacy by McIntyre’s Books.

Can you still register for this event?

It’s not too late! You can still register through Oct. 4.

To further support the well-being of our attendees, we have made the following changes for this event:

1) In-person registration. Tickets are $100 per person and tables seat 10 people. Attendance is limited to 150 people to better allow for more distancing.

2) Live online program registration. Tickets are $40 per person. The event will be held via Zoom. A few days prior to the event, attendees will receive an email with the Zoom link.

It’s Saturday, Oct. 9, with the in-person event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and online attendance from 1-2 p.m. It’ll be held at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center in Pittsboro.

Register for the event online at https:\\ or call 919-742-0578.

Door prizes include a private tour of the Pat Conroy Literary Center, a unique author’s basket with Conroy books, wine, and chocolate, and a round of golf for four with carts at Chapel Ridge Country Club

This luncheon is a vital fundraiser for Chatham Literacy. Funds raised will directly support essential literacy services for adults who live or work in Chatham County.

Many thanks to our event business sponsors who believe in the importance of adult literacy: Mountaire Farms (platinum sponsor); Duke Energy, Edward Jones, and Wren Foundation (gold sponsors); Carolina Meadows, Chatham News + Record, Reynolds & Associates Physical Therapy (silver sponsors); Baba Antique Wooden Floors, Brookwood Farms, Chatham Dental Arts, Chatham Park, Tammy Severt (bronze sponsors).


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