What Difference Does It Make?
Written by Terry Witherell, Executive Director, First Literacy
Is there anyone who doesn’t want to make a difference in the world … whether it be making a difference through their work, or in the lives of others? As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. That is to have succeeded.”
At First Literacy, we know that our work makes a difference. And those of you who support our work can know that you are making a difference, too.
We make a difference in the professional lives of the teachers who come to our free professional development workshops; and as a result, in the lives of all the adult learners in their classrooms who benefit from that training. We make a difference for the Adult Basic Education (ABE) and English Language Learning (ELL) programs that get small grants from First Literacy, to be used as seed money for new and innovative ideas they have for teaching their students. And we make a difference in the lives of our scholarship recipients; adult learners who have completed their ABE or ELL programs and have decided to pursue further education or vocational training.
Putting our Words into Action
This year, we awarded 32 scholarships to adult learners who are pursuing higher education. Our supporters often ask: “What difference does it make for someone to get a $1500 scholarship? That doesn’t seem like a lot of money. Isn’t tuition a lot more than that?” Not so for our scholars who are enrolled at schools such as Bunker Hill Community College, North Shore Community College, Mount Wachusett, and UMass Boston. With our $1500 scholarship, a student enrolled as an in-state resident at a community college can take six credits in an academic year. That $1500 can make the difference between whether our scholars take classes or not. In addition to trying to take classes, most of our scholars are working jobs to support themselves and their families; and after paying their bills, there isn’t enough left for their education.
We know that this financial support matters; but we always are striving to do more to support adult learners. Our scholarship recipients face a lot more obstacles than simply paying tuition. The costs for childcare, transportation, a laptop, good Wi-Fi, books, and other supplies are things that many of us don’t have to worry about; and yet without these things, an adult learner is not likely to reach their goals.
Expressing our Gratitude to the PwC Foundation
At First Literacy we also strive to be advocates for our scholarship recipients, and to connect them with resources that can help them. This year, the PwC Foundation, through their Reimagine Grant, asked us what we would do if we had $25,000. How could we make a difference? That was easy for us to answer! We would find other ways to help support our scholars, in addition to tuition.
We are grateful that the PwC Foundation grant gave us the opportunity to learn more about the needs of our scholars. Here is some of what we learned:
- Half of our scholars did not have a laptop! Many of them are borrowing other people’s laptops or are trying to share with someone else. Last year, during COVID, one of our scholars, who did not have his own laptop, had to bike over to his ex-wife’s house to borrow his daughter’s Chromebook when she was done using it.
- The cost of transportation (either buying gas if they drive to class, or getting an MBTA pass), can make it hard for our scholarship recipients to get to class.
- Many of our scholars go into credit card debt buying books for their classes. Or they go without some books, trying to borrow some from classmates.
- Childcare can be a significant issue for adult learners who are trying to get to class.
Thanks to the Reimagine Grant, we were able to give new laptops to those scholars who needed one. Our other scholars received a gas card, or an MBTA monthly pass, or money in their school account to be able to buy books. It also gave us so much joy to be able to help them in this way.
Many of our scholarship recipients weren’t aware that other support existed, or they were afraid to ask. At First Literacy, we are able to be advocates for our scholarship recipients. We have connected them with a number of other resources that will help them to succeed. We call this support “impact dollars”. While we ourselves did not raise that and give it to them, our work on their behalf has given them more resources than they would have accessed without our help.
In the past thirty years, First Literacy has awarded more than 500 scholarships to adult learners who have completed their ABE or ELL programs. We know that 500 is only a small fraction of the need out there. That is what compels us to want to do more.
Every Action Makes a Difference
In our work, it also helps for us to be reminded of The Starfish Story. If you don’t know that story, it goes like this:
One day a man was walking along the beach, when he noticed a boy hurriedly picking up and gently throwing things into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “Young man, what are you doing?” The boy replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” The man laughed to himself and said, “Don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make any difference!”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference to that one.”
Thank you for helping us to make a difference!