All for One 

Five Tucson literacy organizations decide the future looks brighter if they face it together

Running a small literacy/arts organization like Stories that Soar! can be lonely work. But over the summer, Sharon O'Brien realized that it does not need to be.

In July, O'Brien and other literacy-organization directors—from the Literacy for Life Coalition, Literacy Volunteers of Tucson, Reach Out and Read Southern Arizona, and Reading Seed—began meeting to discuss the possibility of merging.

O'Brien says the work of merging was often challenging, especially for the different organizations' board members, who were brought into the process alongside their directors. However, the more it was discussed, the more O'Brien liked the idea of being able to focus on the Stories that Soar! program—and not all of the other details that go into running a nonprofit.

Stories that Soar! is known for the hungry Magic Box that shows up at Tucson-area schools demanding to be fed—and it only likes to eat stories written by kids. The stories get turned over to a team of actors, who turn them into stage productions so students can experience the creative connection in literacy.

Although the merger became legal in August, on Saturday, Oct. 1, the new organization's name will be unveiled during the Rally for Literacy, from 9 to 11 a.m. at Jácome Plaza at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave. (For more information, visit tucsonliteracymovement.org.) Participants are encouraged to wear plain-white T-shirts to show unity around literacy, to create a poster or make one at the rally, and to bring a book to exchange or read.

"It took time for many of the board members to understand the merger," O'Brien says. "It was important to see arts involved in the merger, too. The ability to express yourself creatively is an important part of literacy."

The real work of the merger, although unintended, began two years ago, when literacy organizations began meeting regularly with the Literacy for Life Coalition, and tried to figure out new ways to partner up. Betty Stauffer, Literacy Volunteers of Tucson's executive director, says that laid the ground work, "particularly the trust we created, and that opened the door for the conversation. One of the things about this literacy merger: There was no duplication of services. All five do very different things."

But the reason for bringing the groups together wasn't about making sure that area literacy organizations weren't duplicating services, but more about strength in numbers. If everyone's goal was to hit a critical mass and make a big difference in Tucson, it was obvious the only way to make that happen was a legal merger.

"We had to bulk up, but we couldn't do that by ourselves. We thought we could do that better by all working together, and the idea works, because we all work with different age groups along the continuum of literacy," Stauffer says.

The new organization puts Stauffer in charge of the larger agency; all previous organization directors will work as program directors and continue their work. Now, when the programs want to work together, it can happen seamlessly under one roof, at the Literacy Volunteers' current headquarters on Speedway Boulevard.

The merger will also benefit all of the organizations through volunteer recruitment and training. Stauffer says more volunteers are expected, because they'll be attracted to the larger variety of services. All volunteers will attend one orientation, and once the volunteers decide where they want to work, they'll go to a specific training.

Fundraising, Stauffer says, is another area in which the merged groups hope to benefit.

"We do believe we are going to be more successful in raising more funds jointly and become eligible for some grants and some funds that we weren't able to individually," she says.

Stauffer says she anticipates the new organization will appeal more to individual donors. Put in the context of a business model, there are now more products to choose from—pre-K, K-12 and adult literacy. Stauffer says she especially hopes to see an increase in donations from donors who complain that literacy groups shouldn't benefit from government assistance.

"They say our support should come from the private sector. OK, so here we are, private sector," Stauffer says.

Currently, Literacy Volunteers is able to work with 1,900 students, and Reading Seed works with another 2,500 students. To grow, the organization needs more donations.

"We are all stretched out tight, as far as we can go," Stauffer says. "When people start hearing about the merger, a lot of them say, 'Isn't that great? You can all be more efficient.' These are the five most-efficient organizations you could ever find. We're not cutting personnel, although it is more efficient working together, marketing together and going after volunteers together. But in order for all of us to have a bigger impact, we need to grow resources. We need more support."

Statistics on the prison population and dropout rates in Arizona show that now is a good time for local literacy efforts to increase. Stauffer points out that 75 percent of prison inmates don't have a high school diploma or GED. Arizona also has one of the highest dropout rates in the country, with one in five adults considered functionally illiterate.

Stauffer says all of the organizations involved in the merger want to see these numbers turn around.

"We have common goals, and the merger seemed to be the best way to turn our community around," she says.

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