Gillian Helm is executive director of Literacy Kansas City, a post she took over last month after four years as programs director for the nonprofit, founded 30 years ago to teach English-speaking adults 16 and older how to read and write.
Helm has a bachelor’s in English literature from Park University and earned a masters in public administration from University of Missouri-Kansas City.
At 6 p.m. Nov. 12 at Central Library, Literacy KC is hosting “Writers for Readers” to raise money for a program where graduate students from UMKC will teach creative writing to Literacy KC students. Tickets cost $50 at literacykc.org and include dinner, performances by UMKC theater students, Literacy KC students and a conversation with New York-based author Edmund White, his husband, writer Michael Carroll, and Whitney Terrell, a creative writing professor at UMKC.
This conversation, shortened and minimally edited for clarity, took place at the office on Armour Boulevard.
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Q: Why are there Americans 16 and older who don’t know how to read and write?
A: There are so many reasons for that. The big one is undiagnosed/untreated learning disabilities — lots of dyslexia. Dyslexia only began being recognized and researched in the 1970s. Diagnosis is expensive and takes time, and treatment is expensive and takes time.
Another reason is, families that are struggling to meet the higher needs priorities — let’s make sure we can eat, that we have a roof over our heads — for them, reading and education go farther down in the hierarchy of needs.
The churn rate in the school district also contributes to that.
Q: Churn rate of teachers or students?
A: Students, people moving around. It’s really hard to pick up where you left off at a new school if you are changing schools five times within the school year.
Q: Why would students change schools that often?
A: Family situations change, different jobs, different home life arrangements.
Q: What age group do you see coming in the most to learn how to read?
A: The majority are between 25 and 45, which makes sense. That’s about the time where they’ve been out of school long enough that they realize they could get a better job, or a job, if they picked up some of the skills they missed. Related to that is people who want to get a GED. So that brings people back in the 25- to 30-year-old range.
Then, from 30 to 45, people have kids and the kids get to the point where the parent can no longer help them with homework, and they want to be able to help.
Q: Why do you want to raise money to teach creative writing?
A: We want to help our students explore the benefits that can come from internal exploration. It can be cathartic to talk about and write about your experiences, and at the same time they will learn skills that will transfer to college prep or writing resumes.