Literacy program gets a little help from its friends

LENOX — The Literacy Network of South Berkshire started with 11 students and a handful of volunteers in 1991. Nowadays, the nonprofit serves as many as 159 students a month, each one striving to better their literacy skills, and ultimately their futures.

To help residents achieve these goals, LitNet this month launched what it's calling the "American Dream Campaign" to raise funds for services and program materials. The Marblehead-based Gilson Family Foundation has promised to match donations up to a total of $30,000 until LitNet's annual gala, slated for Oct. 14.

The organization relies on volunteer tutors and community spaces to offer free, one-on-one tutoring. It also depends on private funding for materials, tutor training programs and staff and office space in Lee.

"Our funding has been level but our services have been increasing," said Jennifer Hermanski, LitNet's executive director since January 2016.

That fall, the organization marked its 25th anniversary. The current operating budget for LitNet is $204,400. This month's roster includes 132 students meeting with tutors; 13 students on break, and nine students waiting to be matched with a tutor.

While the organization was created to help native English speakers strengthen their reading, writing and speaking skills, LitNet has expanded its mission to better serve immigrants and new citizens in the Southern Berkshire region.

Today, most students are learning English as a second language. But others are working to enhance their reading skills, studying to earn their high school equivalency credential or preparing to take U.S. citizenship exams.

"We've always been impressed with the results from the organization," said Peter John "P.J." Spina of Denver, Colo., who oversees The Gilson Family Foundation with his sister, Michelle Spina Schmidt of Boston.

"Over time we can see that their work can be pretty impactful," P.J. Spina said.


The small, private philanthropic effort has local ties. It was established through the estate of their late uncle, Leo Gilson, who grew up and worked in Pittsfield, and Gilson's wife, Lucy. P.J. and Michelle grew up in Lenox, children of the late Peter Spina and Mary Spina, who serves as a part-time education coordinator for LitNet.

"I can't speak for my uncle, of course, but I think because he grew up in Pittsfield he liked to contribute to the area, and to smaller organizations like this one, where it's nice to see the impact in a community," P.J. Spina said in a phone interview.

LitNet's board came up with the idea for the American Dream Campaign — and the Spinas embraced it. "I think we wanted to see how we can inspire and motivate others, whether it's the tutors, board members or other people throughout the county to get involved and see how they can make their dollar go further," P.J. Spina said.

Lucy Prashker, president of LitNet's board, made a pitch for the campaign during the June 20 tutor appreciation picnic held at Mary Spina's home. In her remarks, she said she hopes the campaign will serve "as a catalyst to increase the visibility and awareness of the need in the community," noting that the organization has seen a steady annual increase in requests for tutors.

Prashker underlined LitNet's values of literacy and a sense of community to help people achieve their American Dream, be it to go to college, find a job or provide a better life for their children.

"Some people say the American Dream is dead, but you tutors know that's not true. The American Dream is very much alive at LitNet," she said.

Tutors offer "encouragement and friendship" and educate students, Prashker said, working "out of the spotlight, in the nooks and crannies of libraries and coffee houses."

LitNet's tutors, in addition to offering hundreds of volunteer hours, also provide experience as mentors, since many come from professional backgrounds in teaching, business, science, medicine, social work, legal services and creative industries.

"I'm very excited because I, too, am the product of the American Dream," said LitNet's Jennifer Hermanski. Her great grandparents came from Poland and her grandmother, who dropped out of high school, went on to earn her GED after the age of 40.

Hermanski said the new campaign will rely on general donations and "peer to peer" efforts to solicit donations by sharing the human-interest stories of LitNet's students, as well as their tutors.

LitNet's board is working to develop goals for the next five years. They include finding new types of revenue, forging new partnerships and developing metrics to better understand student progress.

"It's important for us to track that impact," she said.


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