Literacy matters to...

Building new perspectives, skills, and capabilities.
Adapting for rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns.”
Evolving and reclaiming my life with compassionate, rehabilitating, life-changing work.

  • Excerpt from “Memory Loss” by Erin McDonald

Erin McDonald is an adult learner in the brain injury/stroke survivor class at the Adult Academic Program of Robbinsdale Area Schools. She published her poem “Memory Loss” in the 2019 edition of Journeys: An Anthology of Adult Student Writing, produced annually by the Minnesota Literacy Council. Her goal was to capture the confusion and short-term memory loss she experiences every day in living life with a traumatic brain injury.

Erin never imagined she would need to re-learn fundamental literacy skills like writing, reading aloud and reading comprehension as an adult.

“Before I had my brain injury, I was a math tutor and worked with kids on the autism spectrum who were preparing to take standardized tests to go to college. [With my brain injury], I lost everything. I can read a page and then turn the next page and the previous page is gone.”

Erin recognizes that literacy is crucial to living a meaningful life and a key part of her rehabilitation.

“You finish your [occupational therapy] at the hospital and they say, ‘You’re done—you can go to the bathroom and hold a fork.’ But rehabilitation is forever, and the mind is just as important as the body, if not more. So having this program is incredible. It’s really helped me a lot.”


Being published in Journeys

The curriculum of the brain injury/stroke survivor class includes personal writing, with the option to submit one’s work for publication in Journeys. In addition to encouragement Erin received from her teacher and classmates, she also had the support of her eight-year-old niece, Aibhlin, who was studying poetry in school. Aibhlin helped Erin decide to write a poem and mentored her through the writing process: helping her create word maps and reading through early drafts. When Erin got discouraged, she’d turn to a note Aibhlin wrote for her as a reassuring reminder that she could do it:  “Language is hard. But I know that I know it. Never give up.”

At our annual Awards Ceremony and Journeys Reading celebrating the book’s publication, Erin read her poem in front of a packed room, accompanied onstage by Aibhlin. Erin is proud of this accomplishment and what the night represented in her own learning journey, but she also remembers the power in hearing the stories of other adult basic education students.

“They were phenomenal,” she says. “To see all the other students and have them present was extremely meaningful.”

Next steps:


Cody Cropper is a professional soccer player (goalkeeper for the New England Revolution) and fiancé to Minnesota Literacy Council board member Nicole Flaherty. You’d never guess that as a kid, he was bullied and struggled in school.

“Unfortunately, those negative experiences turned me away from wanting to learn and accomplish what I was capable of in the classroom,” says Cody.

From an early age, he was happiest and most confident on the soccer field, where he showed a strong talent for goalkeeping. But as he continued to grow on the field, he became less and less focused on school. He started hanging out with troublemakers and acting out, which prompted his mom to move the family from Georgia to Minnesota for a fresh start. He says the move helped, but that he continued to goof off in class.

“It was easier to mask my academic insecurities by being the class clown than it was to be mature and face them,” he says.

At 16, Cody was scouted by Ipswitch Town Football Club and moved to England to chase his dream of becoming a pro soccer player. After six years of goalkeeping for various teams in England, he sustained knee injuries and had to return to the United States for surgery and rehabilitation.

During the six months Cody spent on the sidelines, he realized he wanted to stay in the United States, closer to his family and closer to Nicole, who was then his girlfriend. Through conversations with Nicole, he also started to confront the fact that he’d never graduated from high school, and began to face his academic fears. “At this point it had been nearly seven years since stepping into anything remotely close to a classroom, and I was scared.”

“When out with Nicole, I felt embarrassed and at times ashamed when in conversations I was asked, ‘So where did you go to college?’ and I would respond ‘Actually, I didn’t even graduate high school…'”

With Nicole’s encouragement, he started studying to take the GED. Though he felt disheartened at times, support from Nicole kept him going.

Cody passed all four tests and acquired his GED. Today, in addition to playing goalkeeper for the New England Revolution, he is enrolled at Southern New Hampshire University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. In the future, he sees himself building a career around coaching. “In order to coach at the collegiate level, you have to have a master’s degree,” he says. And now that he’s well on his way to finishing his bachelor’s degree, he’ll be well positioned to take that next step.

“There are many individuals who are not as fortunate as I am to have such an amazing support network and resources to assist them in pursuing their educational goals,” he says.

He credits “support of friends, family and resources similar to those provided by the Minnesota Literacy Council” for helping him face his fears and move forward with his education. “I’ve realized that whatever I put my mind to, whether it’s on the field or in school, I can do it.”


Deb Fineman discovered the Minnesota Literacy Council when she attended one of our tutor trainings in preparation for volunteering with Experience Corps, an AARP program that engages people age 50 and older in boosting  the literacy and academic performance of children in urban schools.

“The training I got at the Minnesota Literacy Council was amazing,” she says. “Rob handed us a piece of paper and had us read aloud from it, but all the text was upside down and backwards, just like if you didn’t know how to read or were dyslexic. It was so frustrating!”

This exercise, she says, helped her to deeply feel what it’s like to be a beginning or struggling reader. 

Since attending the training, she has become a passionate supporter of the literacy council and makes regular appearances at our events. When she attended Winter Tales for the first time last year, she didn’t know what to expect, but she ended up cherishing the experience. She appreciated the chance to hear directly from adult learners, cheering them on as they used their new literacy skills to share their stories with the audience. 

“Imagine what it must be like for someone who can't read, and then learns to read, and then writes a story and gets up in front of strangers to share it,” says Deb. 

She remembers that the students were excited to share their stories, but the experience was clearly new and scary to some of them. “There was one student who got too scared to read aloud, and another who was too scared at first, but then went ahead with it after some encouragement from their teacher.”

Much like the training that sparked her relationship with the Minnesota Literacy Council, Deb’s experience at Winter Tales gave her a chance to more fully empathize with the journey of a literacy learner.

“Seeing the support at Winter Tales was incredible,” she says. “The students were so brave.”



When we asked Leslie Yoder why she donates to the literacy council, we expected to get an answer that involved books. (She's a librarian and former teacher.)

And we did. But we also got so much more. 


Why does literacy matter to you?

Literacy is key to doors being opened. It's key to being able to take advantage of opportunities that will allow you to have a richer life and provide freedom.

I grew up in a home that was very troubled and being able to read was an escape for me. I would go to the library every week, take out as many books as I could, and read them all immediately. Reading was more than a recreational activity, it was a refuge. I see that with the students I’ve worked with over the years: that literacy is key both practically and in terms of enrichment.


Why support the literacy council?

I see the literacy council as quietly getting the job done. It’s just people going to meetings and trainings and showing up to work with students and groups that need support. It’s just an organization that works hard to get an important job done without calling a lot of attention to itself. That’s worthy of support.

Given the horrific ugliness of what’s going on right now politically, the work the literacy council is doing to help people be productive and engage in society and culture and become citizens is so important. And this is a time when I think a lot of us feel powerless and overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues our country is facing. I’m a big believer in doing the small things we can to support work that makes a difference and reflects our values. And that’s why I believe it’s important to support groups like the literacy council.


Take a page out of Leslie's book and make a donation before our fiscal year ends on June 30!


Thanks to the support of donors like you, Mamyatinaye Peh Leh has been making up for lost time at our Open Door Learning Center - Arlington Hills.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school my whole life,” Peh Leh says. "So I go every day now."

Peh Leh was born in Burma, but the civil war there forced her and her family to flee to a refugee camp in Thailand. In 2010, Peh Leh and her family moved to the U.S.

Since she started taking English classes at Open Door in 2015, Peh Leh has rarely missed a day of class. Recently, she's started volunteering as an office assistant, as well. Jessica Jones, Peh Leh's teacher, says Peh Leh is known as the rock of her classroom and recognized as a school-wide leader.

At the literacy council's annual Awards Ceremony and Journeys Readings earlier this month, Peh Leh's incredible dedication paid off: she was one of seven Adult Basic Education (ABE) students from programs across the state to win an Outstanding Learner Award. 

I was very happy because I never received an award before,” Peh Leh explains. But in all the excitement at the Awards Ceremony, she forgot to bring the acceptance speech she had spent days practicing with her to the podium.

She’d like to share it with you now:

“This is a day of happiness for me. Thank you to the award committee for selecting me. Thank you to my wonderful teachers and teacher Jessica for encouraging me and paying attention to me. Thank you for everyone’s support and love. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to come to school.”

Peh Leh's goal is to improve her English so that she can be an advocate for other newcomers in the community. Thanks to your support and Peh Leh's unwavering dedication, it’s a goal she's well on her way to accomplishing.

To relive more of the excitement of our annual Awards Ceremony and Journeys Readings, check out our photo album from the night!




When it comes to volunteering, Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed is in a league of his own. 

Last year alone, he volunteered at our Open Door Learning Center - Lake Streetfor 856 hours (that's over 15 hours per week!). For perspective, the volunteer with the second highest number of hours logged 534 hours. With more than 2,250 lifetime volunteer hours, it’s hard to believe that Mohamed’s only been volunteering since 2014. 

"I didn't know what volunteering was until I came to (Open Door) and started taking English classes here," Mohamed said. "I saw some other people volunteering and decided to give it a shot."

The rest, as they say, is history. When Mohamed's not volunteering as a classroom assistant for beginning and advanced ESL classes, he's taking computer forensic classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Does studying and volunteering every day sound like a busy schedule? Mohamed doesn't think so.

"Volunteering is my normal state," he said. "If I didn’t volunteer, I would have all the time in the world, but it would be a boring life.”

Feeling inspired? Follow Mohamed's lead and get involved! Visit our website to learn more about how you can become a literacy volunteer.




Ann Lonstein is a longtime friend of the literacy council. We asked her to share why literacy matters to her. This is what she said:

My cousin says that when she thinks of me as a child, she sees me lying on a bed reading and eating a tomato. That is true. I loved both books and tomatoes and still do. The tomato fed my body and the books my mind and soul.  The books also planted in me the seeds of adventure and connected me to the world outside Messina, the small town on the northern border of South Africa, where I grew up.

South Africa had two major languages – English and Afrikaans. I learned to read and speak both but went to an English-speaking school. The books I read from the age of seven onwards tended to be written by English writers. They prepared me for boarding school at age twelve.

I also read many books by American authors. When my husband and I had to make a decision about emigrating, perhaps because of reading books about New England and the history of the United States, I agreed to move to Boston.

Ann and husband

Ann and her husband, John, in London, where they spent the night on their way to the U.S.

When we flew into Boston airport, I was startled by the sense of recognition I had. I felt as if I had lived there, and of course I had, in the books I had read.

I was sure we would have no problem with the language. We speak English, don’t we? We had trouble on the first day at our hotel. The room had two beds and a couch. Where was the cot for our baby? They told us they would bring up a crib.

The accents threw us too. We were in a deli and bought chicken. The large man behind the counter asked in what I now know to be a southern accent, “do you want cawlslaw?” John kept saying, “I want the cabbage salad,” which, we realized that day, is coleslaw.

We were lucky because with some bumps we could speak and read the language and our accent helped us be understood even when we said a word with a long A and they used a short A.

Recently, I thought of my love of words and language in a new way. I realized that every human, learns to use words and hopefully most learn to read and write them. We all have a place, a country, an area that we live in or come from. We are all a part of that world. Then we may move to another place, country, area and have to start again, building a new life with language.

That is what literacy is. Not knowing the language of a new place does not make us illiterate. We still have our favorite books, stories and food. We still have our language and history. But we need to learn the language of the new place to create our futures.

Leaving everything we know and moving to a new place takes incredible bravery and dedication. Sometimes, we’re lucky and already know the language of the new place, which can help us fit in more quickly. Other times, we need an organization like the literacy council to help us learn and rebuild. I am in awe of what the literacy council does and am honored to support it.

Ann Lonstein arrived in the United States 50 years ago. Read more of her writing on her travel blog.



We sat down with Bill Helker, a long-time volunteer who started out in the ESL classroom and later found his niche as a dedicated citizenship tutor. Bill and his wife Carol recently attended the naturalization ceremony for his student Fadumo. Carol supports the many hours Bill spends tutoring each week – and the extra prep time he puts in at home!

How many students have you helped to become citizens?
Bill: I’ve lost count. About 75 through Open Door Learning Center. I tutor them one-to-one at various times and locations to fit their schedule.

Can you tell us a bit about your most recent student?
My most recent student to acquire citizenship was Fadumo, in September. I worked with Fadumo for about two years, so she was one of our longest running students.  She has five kids, two of them with special needs, so she has a lot on her plate. But she always attended class so consistently and was always in good spirits. She’s just a wonderful person.

What is your favorite citizenship subject to teach?
The Constitution. Depending on the student, we can really delve deeper into the material.

What advice do you have for future tutors?
Have a lesson plan! I’m very big on lesson plans. You can make notes on them as you go, and when you come back to it later you know exactly where there was a hang up.  I would also encourage volunteers to let go of Western cultural norms when it comes to being on time and sticking to schedules. Go with the flow!

What do you wish more people knew or understood about your students?
How much they want citizenship! My students are always so industrious and hardworking. I have some great conversations with them. But I do wish people, including me, had a better and more accurate understanding of the government benefits they actually receive. There are a lot of misconceptions out there. 

Anything else you’d like to share?
Over the years, students have tried to give me gifts. It’s a sign of respect and esteem in many cultures. But I politely decline and instead tell them, ‘The greatest gift you can give me is to promise that once you pass your citizenship test, you will vote in every single election.’ And yes, Fadumo did vote in November! I also got a call from another former student, Hodan. She was so excited and proud to tell me she voted!

Learn more:



We sat down with "The Barbs," a pair of longtime friends who also volunteer together at Open Door Learning Center-Northeast, teaching a Beginner ESL class. Listen to find out more about one of their favorite volunteer memories, how their roles have reversed and what makes one of them tear up every time.




13-year-old Hannah made a huge donation — 714 children's books and $1,356 — to the Minnesota Literacy Council. She held a book and fundraising drive in honor of her Bat Mitzvah and the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam. Listen to Hannah share her connection to literacy in this audio conversation.




We consider Doris Peterson to be one of the founding leaders of the Minnesota Literacy Council back in the early 1970s. Watch her show you a reading lesson from 40 years ago and listen as she shares why she continues to donate today.

We also enjoyed hearing her memories of the early days of the literacy council:



"If the wife called for her husband, we told her, 'That's not good enough! He needs to call for himself!'"



"We had to convince them that they shouldn't be embarrassed. Because it was NOT. THEIR. FAULT. It was economic deprivation." 



"President Kennedy just died, and there was a big push: What can you do for your country? You just felt you needed to use your skills to improve something. Everybody was there to help everyone. I miss that." 




"What do you wish all Americans knew about Muslims?"

That's the question volunteer John Dunham posed to his advanced ESL students, many of whom are Muslim. As students conversed, John took notes. He was moved by their passion and call for peace. John compiled his students' words with his thoughts, and his Op-Ed piece was published in the Star Tribune.

He says the best part of this project was "letting their voices be heard instead of our speculations."

"Literacy is survival and success in life for an immigrant or refugee," says John. "The more words you know -- your ability to express yourself -- accounts for a lot of what happens to you in life."





When Jenna Yeakle’s fifth-grade teacher asked students to predict what their lives would be like in the next ten years, Jenna said she wanted to be an emu farmer, a single mother raising her children in the woods and a hockey player.

But instead of emus or hockey pucks, Jenna’s companions are the national service members she supports as VISTA leader at the Minnesota Literacy Council. She is serious about service—and has a small tattoo of a spoon on her right wrist to prove it.

We sat down with her to hear the story behind the spoon and ask her why literacy matters.

 “Knives are for cutting, forks are for eating, spoons are for serving.” This camp saying was ingrained in Jenna’s mind thanks to years as a camper and counselor. For her, a spoon represents service to others. After an inspiring day of VISTA service, Jenna decided to get a tattoo of a spoon to remember her personal mission to serve others in any capacity she can. It represents accommodation, flexibility and working to meet the needs of the individuals and community around her. She’s fulfilling that commitment today with a second year of national service.

Literacy matters to Jenna because it gives her everything she needs to serve: the ability to send emails, write blog posts, draft proposals, review applications and navigate healthcare benefits. And literacy matters to Jenna because she knows it improves quality of life, allowing herself and others to read and grow and explore, to love life. Her career path will continue in education so she can empower others to reach their potential.


Are you or someone you know interested in serving as a Literacy VISTA starting in August? Learn more about the VISTA positions and benefits. Applications accepted on a rolling basis through May 30.