Shortly after she graduated from BYU in 2000, Shauna Brown of Eagle Mountain volunteered as an adult reading tutor with Project Read in Provo. It was an enriching part of her life and something that fed a passion for adult literacy. In fact, she even considered applying to be the organization’s executive director, but decided against it because she and her husband were planning to move to Taiwan to teach English and enjoy international adventures before settling into careers and family.
However, just as the plane tickets were nearly purchased, she and her husband had a feeling they should stay in Provo.
“I called a member of the board and asked if they’d already found someone to fill that role,” Shauna says. “Luckily, they hadn’t.”
Despite her lack of experience, the board hired her as the executive director, a role she has now cherished for 19 years.
“Adult literacy issues can be very isolating,” Shauna says. “These are not dumb people. They have amazing skills — they just can’t read.”
Many of the organization’s participants have dyslexia or other learning disability and haven’t had access to successful techniques and treatments. They have also developed coping mechanisms and habits that limit communal knowledge of their illiteracy, making it harder to receive help.
But Shauna and her team work hard with a variety of organizations and government agencies to identify candidates.
“Often, people who struggle with literacy don’t just struggle with literacy,” Shauna says. “They struggle with employment, housing and other areas of their lives.”
Project Read is a bridge dedicated to serving native English speakers who fail to meet the reading skill standards of traditional adult education programs typically available through school districts.
“Those adult education programs are wonderful and dedicated to helping adults complete their high school education,” Shauna says. “However, secondary education teachers don’t often have the time, energy or training to help adults who aren’t yet reading at a junior high reading level. We can help prepare adults to be successful in those adult education programs.”
Shauna points out that reading levels under seventh grade are considered to be in the category of “learning to read.” However, once a student reaches a reading level closer to ninth grade, they are “reading to learn.” The goal of Project Read is to help participants reach the “reading to learn” stage.
“If you are taking 10th grade history, you will be expected to read at a 10th grade level,” Shauna says. “If you don’t, you will struggle, no matter your motivation level.”
Project Read utilizes a few methods to teach, but one-on-one peer tutoring and mentoring is the organization’s backbone.
“We’re working with adults who have failed at literacy for 20, 30, 40 years,” she says. “They’ve been in the classroom setting and haven’t found what they need. They’ve been the class clown, the wallflower — whatever coping strategy they could find — and they need someone to trust. Plus, with one-on-one mentoring, there is no place to hide.”
Often, participants were part of the foster care program in their youth. For foster children, education often takes a backseat to more pressing needs, like food and shelter insecurity, physical or emotional trauma, and family discord.
“(Abraham) Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that if basic needs aren’t being met, you won’t get to the other levels of development,” Shauna says. “For many of those people, reading well wasn’t a priority.”
This group of former foster children is especially close to Shauna’s heart. She and her husband have been foster parents off and on since she was 25 years old.
“We were a young couple and we were having some infertility problems,” she says. “We had a new house that had six bedrooms in it — and just the two of us. We thought that was a waste and that we could help some children who needed it.”
Within three days of qualifying as foster parents, the young couple had three kids living with them, including one that was 12 years old, just 13 years younger than Shauna. The couple eventually legally adopted the two youngest initial foster children who are 26 and 23 years old now, making Shauna a proud “young grandmother.”
In fact, over the years, the couple has combined biological children with adopted children to create a family that currently includes nine children.
“We are working to change lives through literacy by empowering individuals, strengthening families and building our community,” she says.