Durham Literacy Center turning 25

Reggie Hodges
Reggie Hodges

Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — When the Durham Literacy Center was formed in 1985, the clients it aimed to serve mainly were black, many of them former workers for what had been the city’s cigarette and sock factories.

“Many of the workers had very poor literacy skills because they didn’t need them, they did manual labor,” says Reggie Hodges, the center’s executive director.

Now, with the city’s Hispanic population totaling 30,000, up from 2,000 in 1990, Hodges says, many of the center’s clients are Hispanic and its focus increasingly is on equipping them for future jobs and helping them help themselves.

To better serve the city’s increasingly diverse population, including new waves of immigrants from Iraq, Burma and Vietnam, Hodges says, the center this year plans to launch a capital campaign to raise $2.5 million to renovate a former office building in the Lakewood near downtown to serve as its new offices.

The center, which operates with an annual budget of $400,000, serves roughly 550 people a year, or the maximum it can handle, says Hodges, who joined the center in 2004 after teaching at Alamance Community College.

A former Peace Corps volunteer, Hodges previously had lived and worked in Africa for 30 years.

The center provides three main programs, including English for speakers of other languages, adult literacy and a teen career academy.

Serving over 300 people, including 250 whose native language is Spanish, the program for speakers of other languages is the agency’s biggest.

It offers classes in four levels of English proficiency, typically with 10 to 12 students and two teachers per class, with each two-hour class meeting twice a week, and students typically staying in the program for 18 months.

For the adult-literacy program, the center trains tutors and pairs them one-on-one with students four hours a week, with students typically staying in the program for four years.

Roughly 12 percent of adult North Carolinians who participate in literacy programs read below third-grade level, compared to 54 percent of those participating in the center’s programs, Hodges says.

The center’s Teen Career Academy serves youth ages 16 to 18 who drop out of Durham’s public schools and read at a sixth-grade level or above.

The program aims to help teens earn their graduate equivalency degree, or GED, and get into community colleges.

The center generates roughly $100,000 a year through government grants, $175,000 from United Way of the Greater Triangle and smaller foundations, and $125,000 from individuals and events.

While many nonprofits have struggled because of the recession, Hodges says, the literacy center has added staff and seen its budget grow by $40,000, both through the sale of a building it received as a gift several years ago and a shift in its revenue strategy.

The center, for example, dropped a fee-for-service contract under the federal Workforce Investment Act that could have generated $20,000 but was based on the number of students served and their actual attendance.

Instead, focusing on raising money from individuals and through non-government grants, the center generated $50,000.

With the center increasingly serving Hispanics, Hodges says, its programs increasingly have focused on the vocabulary its students will need for future jobs in industries like construction and auto detailing.

Employers have told the center that a job applicant who speaks English and Spanish can earn $7,500 more a year than one who speaks only

The center also increasingly tries to “empower people to take control of their lives and to get involved in their community,” Hodges says.

Typically unable to read or write when they first come to the center, clients often lack confidence, he says.

But in working with the center’s staff, he says, they “gain pride and respect for themselves and their community.”

Susan Springer, a board member who is chairing the center’s 25th anniversary and has volunteered in the adult-literacy program, says the center is all about empowerment.

Learning to read and write “is the most fundamental and basic skill you can have,” she says. “Without it, it’s very hard to be successful in your life.”

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