Read Muskegon grew out of an informal group of volunteers providing one-on-one literacy tutoring, but the organization in recent years has shifted gears to boost its visibility and impact in the community.
When Melissa Moore joined Read Muskegon as its first executive director, she and two other part-timers shared cubicle space at Muskegon Area District Library’s administrative offices.
Today, less than four years later, a once-vacant storefront in Muskegon Heights has become a hub of literacy efforts in Muskegon County. Read Muskegon, the county’s only nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life through improved literacy, was selected as a finalist in the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards in the small organization category.
Since Moore started in 2014, Read Muskegon has gone from serving 50 individuals through one-on-one tutoring, which is still core to its mission, to a variety of outreach programs offered through Michigan Works!, Great Start Collaborative, Muskegon County Jail and its new Family Literacy Center at 26 East Broadway.
The organization, founded in 2005, has evolved from struggling to put on a fundraising event to a budget of more than $200,000, said Peter Violino, past board chair during the transition years of 2014-16 and a former tutor.
“The one-to-one tutoring was such a rewarding thing, but it’s a really tough model to reach the 20,000 to 25,000 people (who are functionally illiterate),” Violino said. “It’s great to see that (growth) happening because the program is now expanding and it opens up our services to so many other people in the community.”
Moore, with the guidance and forward-thinking of a dedicated board, is proud of the strides and expansion in recent years. The “one-on-one pairs are the heart of what we do,” but it’s a resource-heavy model to train volunteers and provide individual support to learners, Moore said.
“It wasn’t going to make a big dent,” she said. “We started thinking from the very start, who do we need to be? We obviously need to be something more if we’re ever going to make an impact.”
The board developed a strategic plan that included a literacy center in three to five years, but it happened much faster when space — leased for the cost of property taxes — became available in Muskegon Heights, an opportunity suggested by another board member, Jonathan Wilson, economic development manager for Muskegon County.
“We really wanted to be the hub for literacy in Muskegon County and be the go-to organization,” Wilson said. “Now with the move and expanding our programming, I think we have accomplished that goal.”
The 2,600-square-foot center opened in May 2017 through a partnership with the city, which was looking to fill vacant storefronts in an effort to revitalize downtown. Transportation is often a barrier, so the move brought the center to the community with the most critical need.
“I got the sense that we could be in on the ground floor of something really exciting that would benefit the community of Muskegon Heights and was right where we need to be,” Moore said. “The other thing I loved is it said something about who we wanted to be as an organization. You can’t always play it safe, you have to think long term and think outside of the box.”
Classes, tutoring and programs still take place in the community, but, as awareness grows, the center will continue to expand programs for low-literacy adults, family literacy and toddlers up to 5 years old. Services include tutoring labs for drop-in and one-on-one tutoring, small group and ESL classes focused on improving functional literacy, job readiness and instruction for parents on how to engage in early literacy development with their children.
Moore, who has a background in nonprofit management but not reading, has discovered there are many barriers to reaching the agency’s targeted population. Printed materials and billboards aren’t an effective marketing tool if a person can’t read, and things like embarrassment and crisis management often prevent people from seeking help.
The organization has focused on building community partnerships with health care organizations such as Hackley Community Care and Muskegon Family Care, churches, workforce agencies, Head Start and soup kitchens to make referrals. Read Muskegon leads small group classes at Michigan Works! and for inmates in the county jail, as well as those in the exit program.
The agency realized programming was needed to address breaking the cycle, since children who have parents who are illiterate or low-level readers are the most at-risk for becoming adults who cannot read. Children can participate in literacy based Play & Learn groups, and there is a family reading corner open during the center’s regular hours.
The center also hosts the literacy-based ABC’s of Cooking, a six-week parent/child healthy cooking workshop, and community-based activities and book distribution at the Heights Farmers Market, family movie nights and other community events.
Moore credits the organization’s growth to a strong board and solid financial management, including diverse funding through contracts, donors and fee-for-service programs. The organization’s budget increased by $70,000 for this fiscal year, and it received the first federal grant through the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act to help prepare entry-level workers with low literacy.
“My passion for this as an issue grows every day. My job is to be the voice of the people who are looking for our help,” Moore said. “Once you teach someone to read, they always have that gift. They carry it with them their whole life.”
Mission: To increase the quality of life in Muskegon County through improved literacy.
Service area: Muskegon County
Executive director: Melissa Moore
Number of employees: 4
Annual budget: (2018) $214,781
Management Best Practices:
- Hire staff committed to our mission, invest in developing their talents, and create an organizational culture where everyone knows they are valued.
- Understand the unique challenges of the population we serve and target our communication and program strategies to reflect those challenges.
- Build on a solid foundation, developing an infrastructure designed for sustainable growth.
Board of directors: Paula Kendra (chair), Kendra Consulting; Brandon Davis (vice chair), Senior Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Muskegon County; Caterina Holt (treasurer), Morgan Stanley; Jennifer Zwemer (secretary), Whitehall District Schools; Tamica Fox, ADAC Automotive; Cynthia Langlois, Muskegon Community College; Merle Scolnik, retired, special education; Joanie Smith, retired school superintendent; Judith Stojak, Raymond James; Peter Violino, retired, marketing; Jonathan Wilson, Economic Development Director for Muskegon County; Jane Wright, retired CPA