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A Walk Down Memory Lane

A brief history of LVSC, written for our 40th anniversary celebration.


The First Decade: 1981-1991

Alma Liotta, our founder, was serious in her quest for “literacy for all.” So, in 1981, she started our organization as the Somerville branch of the national Literacy Volunteers of America. At the beginning, all work was done in Alma’s home and equipment was stored in her basement. These early inconveniences ended when the Central Jersey Reading Council offered to pay for office space. Alma rented a small room in the PeopleCare Center where we still have an office today.

That first year, there were 18 tutors trained to teach adults how to read through student-centered, goal-focused instruction. During our first decade, tutors were recruited in the newspaper and board minutes were recorded on a typewriter. Accomplishments and memories were captured in newspaper clippings and scant photographs, meticulously catalogued in photo albums. 

The Second Decade: 1991-2001

A President’s Report from 1997 shows that by our second decade, growing pains were largely left behind and Ms. Liotta had stepped down from her leadership role. Our tutoring services were in full force and now included ESL instruction. We had a paid Executive Director and a large, active board of trustees. Student registration was done on paper, in person. Board packets were copied and mailed to board members’ homes.  Fundraising was starting to ramp up. There were a few grant donations and small fundraising events – like gift wrapping at Borders Bookstore and a Macy’s Shopping Day. Individual donors contributed a combined total of $845 to the annual fundraising appeal.

By our 20th anniversary, there were 103 active student/tutor matches. Training often took place in borrowed spaces like corporate meeting rooms or public-school classrooms. Tutor trainers were volunteers, and one tutor trainer had all her training materials in the trunk of her car: books, notebooks, markers, flip charts, you name it. She lovingly called her vehicle "The Literacy Mobile."  

The Third Decade: 2001-2011

By our third decade, our name had changed to Literacy Volunteers of America – Somerset County to reflect the increased scope of our service area. Eventually we dropped our national affiliation and simply became Literacy Volunteers of Somerset County, as we are today. During our third decade LVSC was well-funded by three primary sources, one of which included a large government grant. When funding requirements started to compromise student confidentiality we said, “no way." We gave up this sizable government grant and thus LVSC fundraising dinners and silent auctions were born.

The recession of 2008 hit LVSC hard, and finances were looking bleak as the 30th anniversary loomed. That same year, LVSC lost a dedicated volunteer.  The unassuming Mimi Ruch had tutored for eight years and was an enthusiastic Borders gift-wrapper. When she died unexpectedly, she left a large bequest to LVSC. This gift sustained our organization during impossibly lean economic times. Were it not for her selfless gesture, we might not be here today.

During this period, local demographics were changing rapidly, and our programming moved more and more to ESL instruction, but always with a focus on teaching practical, everyday literacy skills.  Conversation groups were introduced to provide more opportunity for English practice, as well to serve students on a growing waiting list.

The Fourth Decade: 2011-2021

At the end of our fourth decade, nearly 98% of our students were ESL learners.  Our English conversation groups had grown astronomically, and we began providing U.S. citizenship preparation classes. Just prior to the global Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, we were serving 400 students through a network of 200 volunteers. At the time of our 40th anniversary celebration in November 2021, most programming was virtual. Little by little tutors and students were starting to venture back into the library as the world emerged from the pandemic. We began envisioning a future with both virtual and in-person instruction and a return to pre-pandemic levels of service.

During our fourth decade we welcomed a new generation of board members and were proud to have a small staff which included a tutor trainer.  Like Alma Liotta in the early days, we worked a lot from our homes during the pandemic! 

By this time fundraising had gone beyond dinners to include the Fall Soiree after-hours in the library, the Annual Community Spelling Bee, Golf Fore Literacy, and the Garden of Literacy Brunch and Silent Auction. Our list of grant donors became robust and in 2021 our annual fundraising appeal raised more than $33,000. Financial support ensured that we could train tutors to serve the increasing demand for service, develop new programs, and be prepared for unforeseen circumstances the likes of which were certainly seen in 2020.

Tutors were being recruited through online services like Volunteer Match and trained on Zoom. Students applied for services online through our website. Board packets were electronic documents distributed through a calendar invite. We shared memories on Facebook and video slideshows: no more newspaper clippings or photo albums.

By our 40th anniversary so much had changed, yet much had stayed the same. We remained a humble, community-minded organization dedicated to opening doors through literacy. Coursing through our 40-year history are countless stories of learning, teaching, volunteering, planning, guiding, and supporting. Thank you to all who have shared the lifelong gift of literacy and played a part in LVSC’s history.

Take a Video Walk Down Memory Lane!