Literacy KC’s transformative vision to make the writing on the wall accessible to all

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Students follow the line as they pick up any needed items provided by Literacy KC’s monthly pop-up pantry partnered with Harvesters. // Photo courtesy of Jennifer Rangel

In the great literacy landscape mapped across Kansas City, Literacy KC, with its vision of “Literacy for All,” serves a unique mission of bringing literacy into the lives of adult students. While there are other agencies serving adults in a variety of ways including literacy, CEO Gillian Helm points out that Literacy KC is “both the biggest DESE funded program in Missouri and the only nonprofit organization to receive this type of funding,” as well as “the only literacy non-profit for adults” in Kansas City.

In 2020, Literacy KC received a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) grant to expand its services. At that time, Literacy KC was a 20-person team that in 2018 moved to 31st and Troost and served both adults learning to read and adults learning to speak English. The grant has allowed Literacy KC to expand to thirteen different sites across the Kansas City metro area, including a second main site at the School of English, located at 12th and Vine.

Now a 60-person team, Literacy KC has expanded its services to include HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) classes, digital preparation classes, and workforce credentials in forklift operation, OSHA compliance, sewing, and CNA certification. In addition, a partnership with Metropolitan Community College allows college-seeking students a pathway program for skill building post-high school.

As Helm notes, literacy is not just a skill but a way of life: “We define literacy in a very broad sense to include social literacy and civic literacy and making the world a more legible, accepting place for all.” 

Advancing Student Success

Accompanying students on their literacy journeys, Literacy KC staff see firsthand the barriers students often have to overcome to pursue literacy. As Site Coordinator and HiSET instructor Kyley Ast shares, “For adults, life does not stop when we want to achieve goals such as continuing our education, and there are so many obstacles to overcome and hard work that goes into prioritizing one’s education.”

Student Advocate Kevin White’s job is to help remove these obstacles and meet student needs, some of which include: “food, clothes, rental assistance, and utilities being off or nearly off.” Students who are in need find themselves surrounded by a community of advocates at Literacy KC, who provide both pathways to resources and moral support.

Even in the context of the supportive community Literacy KC offers, students may also face negative beliefs about school and their own ability to succeed. Ast says, “Students often come with preconceived beliefs about their strengths and weaknesses in the classroom because prior experiences have created negative ideas about themselves or how they view school.

It’s one of the greatest feelings to see my students recognize their potential and expel those negative feelings about themselves and school in the process.”

Another reality that some Literacy KC students face is trauma wrought by difficult experiences or societal misconceptions. English Language Acquisition (ELA) instructor Jodi Garbison notes that in their strength, perseverance, and resilience in the face of having to adapt to a new culture quickly, her students offer a “counter-narrative” to what society might tend to think about refugees. She has found that her students are incredibly self-sufficient and “beautiful contributors” to their communities and the larger society. She hopes that her students’ stories “reshape people’s narratives about refugees.”

A student of her students’ experiences as much as she is a teacher, Garbison says that the classroom is a place of healing: “We are stronger together. I feel like coming into my class is a place I want to be on my best and worst days. I know that a lot of our students have dealt with trauma. I think the healing happens when we are in a community together.” 

And what students achieve during and after their time at Literacy KC is nothing short of incredible. Jennifer Orrick shares that she spent four years homeless before coming to Literacy KC in Fall 2021. In a matter of months, she studied for and passed her HiSET test, and is currently a Digital Inclusion Instructor at Goodwill.

Of her time at Literacy KC, she says, “Literacy KC was my peace. It was my home away from home. It was a place I could be me.” Though her time at Literacy KC was brief, it was there that Orrick discovered the classroom was a space she could be both student and teacher—as she received the help she needed with reading, she found she could help her fellow students learn math. Orrick is currently taking an online course in CompTIA to earn an IT certification. Her goal is to find an IT job in cybersecurity.

Brittany Miller came to Literacy KC in the midst of transition. She had been a personal care assistant for 12 years and was pursuing her bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration in another state when family needs brought her back to the Kansas City area.

As Miller sought to continue her education, she was recommended to Literacy KC which, through the Kim Rogers Graves Can Do Fund, covered the cost of her CNA class. Of her experience at Literacy KC, Miller says, “The teachers are amazing. Everyone goes that extra mile and farther. You are able to get anything you need.” She has found Literacy KC to be a place for learning and personal support–“The emotional connection means more to me than the world.” Miller is now pursuing her CMT, and is working her way toward becoming a healthcare administrator.

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Jose Padilla smiles after receiving his Certificate of High School Equivalence at Literacy KC’s annual graduation ceremony. // Photo courtesy of Larry Myers

Supporting LKC’s Mission

Alongside the passion of its instructors and staff and the students’ tenacity, another part of what makes Literacy KC such a strong community is the dedication of its volunteers. One way that individuals can get involved at Literacy KC is by being a tutor in a classroom. Tutors work alongside students in instructor-led classrooms, and provide students with extra support and encouragement. They contribute to making all in the classroom feel known and seen.

Judy Joss has been a tutor with Literacy KC for the last 15 years. Within that time, she’s seen Literacy KC grow from a one-on-one tutoring model to a classroom-led model. What hasn’t changed is the beauty of seeing adult learners grow. Adult learners differ from school-aged students since they are seeking this schooling despite personal hardships they take to be there. So, the light coming on in their eyes and their satisfaction in learning is a wonderful and hard-earned delight.

Like Joss, Mylinda Scott’s experience working with students has been rewarding. A tutor since Fall 2016, Scott has been moved by how Literacy KC helps students grow their confidence and sense of community:

One of the classes I volunteer with is the Citizenship Class. It is a class for people who are studying for their American Citizenship interview and exam. This is a very stressful process for people and I am so glad to be able to help with it. Some of my favorite memories are when a student passes their test with the USCIS and they return to class to share their good news with the other students. Their joy and relief are contagious and it’s always such a happy moment!

Both Joss and Scott speak to the delight of accompanying students through their learning journeys and of growing in relationship with the students through their roles as tutors. Joss says, “I have loved meeting so many different people who inspire me daily. Whether they are working on passing their high school equivalency test to qualify for a better job or they want to be able to read to their children or grandchildren, LKC students come with a purpose and work hard to achieve their goals.”

For those interested in supporting Literacy KC and its mission, Helm says that first and foremost, we must “build awareness around the fact that low literacy among adults exists.” When we think about improving life for all of us in the Kansas City community, we must consider literacy. “There is no reason we should have 1 in 5 people reading below a 3rd grade level in Kansas City,” Helm says.

Her invitation is to contribute one’s time, expertise, and funds to Literacy KC. For those desirous of learning more about Literacy KC, the organization has annual events: the Literacy for All Luncheon, which features student stories, and this year will have the added bonus of including students at each of the tables so that attendees can hear even more from students about their journeys at Literacy KC. In the fall, Literacy KC hosts its annual Literacy KC Classic, which involves a mini golf tournament and raising funds to support the organization.

In addition to tutoring, Volunteer Coordinator ToiSheona Thomas suggests a variety of other ways to volunteer at Literacy KC: “We are looking for Let’s Read [a family literacy program] volunteers to assist at the sessions. We have event volunteers for the Literacy for All Luncheon, Literacy KC Graduation, and Literacy KC Classic. We are always looking for toys, blankets, coats, hats, and new or gently used household items for our Annual Holiday Store as well. We also welcome group volunteers for bigger projects and help in the community garden.”

Thomas adds that anyone interested in volunteering can sign up for a volunteer orientation at For those with teaching backgrounds, another way to support Literacy KC is to become an instructor. If interested, contact

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Instructor, Phil Johnson, assists his student in our workforce sewing class with their machine. // Photo courtesy of Jennifer Rangel

Looking to the Future

When it comes to Literacy KC’s future, Helm envisions a “literacy campus”—which she describes as “intentional onsite collective impact opportunities–on-site day care, partners on site who can address barriers [that is] more immediate than a referral system.” Chief Development Officer Xavier Hankins adds, “I hope we can grow and serve even more students who are in need of our services, that we can be the main referral for community services who see Literacy KC’s potential to meet the needs of those they serve. The student-first model is part of the way we work around here.”

It is this student-centered approach, this dedication to the advancement of adult learners in our city, this commitment to “changing lives beyond words,” that make Literacy KC the flourishing organization it is. 

Categories: Culture