Verizon boosts literacy

By Solja Nygard Frangos

Continuing to its focus on literacy, workforce development and community technology, the Verizon Foundation last year gave nearly $504,000 to 57 North Carolina nonprofits.

North Carolina grants by philanthropic arm of Verizon Communications, formed in the 2000 merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic, included $211,000 to improve literacy and $149,000 for workforce development.

The foundation, which gave roughly $70 million in grants last year, plans to hike that by $5 million this year.

“Research identifies literacy as one of the key components to student achievement,” says Steve Toler, Verizon’s vice president for public affairs in North Carolina.

“And although serving ourselves is not one of the foundation’s goals,” he says, “our company will benefit from having a potential customer base that is better educated and equipped to use our services.”

While it has felt the impact of the economic downturn, says spokesman Bob Bishop, the foundation has held giving levels steady.

“The amount of money the foundation gave out in 2002 was very comparable to 2001,” he says. “But hard economic times can definitely be seen in the amount of applications the foundation receives. There are now many more nonprofits asking for funds.”

The foundation gave $100,000 to the Durham Literacy Council, $16,000 to the Development Foundation of Western North Carolina to support workforce development in the construction industry and $11,000 to the Western North Carolina Economic Development Commission to support workforce and economic development in biotechnology.

Lucy E. Haagen, the Literacy Council’s executive director, says the grant is critical for the organization, which has an annual budget of roughly $400,000 and serves more than 700 people.

“Almost everyone seems to be struggling financially and our funds are not on the level they could or should be,” she says.

“Approximately 30 percent of our budget comes from the United Way but this fiscal year, our funding from them has been cut by 30 percent,” she says. “A grant like this can really make a difference in our operations.”

The Verizon Foundation and, before the merger, the GTE Foundation have distributed thousands of dollars to reading skills programs in Durham since 1987, including at least $400,000 to the Literacy Council.

The new grant aims to benefit collaborative programs, not just the council, Haagen says.

The council, for example, works with Raleigh-based Motheread, a national group that helps parents improve their own reading skills so they can help their children to read.

The grant will help parents learn computer skills and work with their children on reading and technology projects.

Half of the grant will support three collaborative efforts – the council will provide books and software to Oxford Manor Achievement School at the Oxford Manor public housing project; sponsor a family literacy program for the residents’ association at the Cornwallis public housing community; and help Spanish-speaking residents learn English at the Little River Family Resource Center

“One of the main goals,” Haagen says, “is to reduce the achievement gap separating low-income and ethnic minority children from their mainstream peers.”

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