Teton Literacy Center staff refused to let $200,000 in state budget cuts last year derail them from their mission: helping valley children and families become literate.
A year after swallowing these cuts — almost a third of the nonprofit’s total funding — the center is thriving, but never completely out of the clear.
“We were first on the chopping block, so it’s an interesting perspective,” Executive Director Laura Soltau said. “We never wanted to shut our doors or reduce our programs, and I’m just amazed by the support of the community. We’re lucky that we live in this small town. Everyone is so generous.”
Teton Literacy Center is a family literacy center with enrichment, tutoring, parent and early childhood opportunities for preschool through high school aged children and their families. It’s the only free after-school, summer, tutoring and family resource in the county.
Soltau said that when times get tough, systems of care — the umbrella of human and social services — tend to be the first to get cut, causing “everyone to panic.”
Teton Literacy Center is the only family literacy center left in Wyoming — the eight other sites disappeared last year due to budget cuts for family literacy centers.
As Teton County School District faces upcoming budget cuts from the Wyoming Legislature, the importance of education programs like the literacy center continues. Last year, district officials estimated that the literacy center saved them $800,000 a year.
“Budget cuts are the new normal,” Soltau said. “But some of the most powerful donations are the smaller gifts we see, coming from people who interact with literacy efforts every day like teachers and parents.”
When it looked like the literacy center needed help to stay afloat, community members stepped up as volunteers and as donors. On Feb. 23, the literacy center’s Pop Quiz Challenge and Dinner Fundraiser raised a total of $111,750 — a combination of $66,000 in donations, $20,750 in ticket sales and sponsors and a $25,000 match by an anonymous donor on the condition that event guests raised more than $50,000 by the end of the night.
The literacy center also just completed a $1 million sustainability campaign that will allow programs to continue for the next five years — enough time to finalize sustainable funding sources for the future.
Community members who recognize the importance of reading are integral to Teton Literacy Center’s continual success.
Paul Hansen, a conservation consultant, has volunteered as a tutor for eight years.
“I first got involved because I was keenly aware that our students in the United States are falling behind other countries,” Hansen said. “For an hour or two a week, I could directly help out with that.”
Hansen said the tutoring is rewarding because “it builds relationships.” One student he tutored for three years is graduating from University of Wyoming this year. They keep in touch and visit when the student comes home over the holidays.
Teachers find this kind of mentorship extremely valuable to help fill gaps that can occur during the day in the classroom.
“I support the Teton Literacy Center because this organization provides children ‘reading mentors’ — the kind of mentors teachers cannot be because our attention is divided among 20 or 25 students at the same time; and the kind of mentors parents cannot be because few are trained reading specialists,” said Libby Crews Wood, a fourth-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary School. “Growing readers need big doses of time, attention and expertise. Teton Literacy staff and volunteers provide all three.”
In addition to the generosity of volunteers, the fundraiser Jackson’s Got Talent has also tremendously helped the Teton Literacy Center. In November of 2016, event organizers say they raised a little more than $100,000. Co-chairman Christine Watson said that at the time, the fundraiser shone light on how much in need the literacy center was.
“Some people didn’t know that Teton Literacy Center had a budget cut, or that our center here is the only remaining program in the entire state of Wyoming,” Watson said. After finding that out, Watson said one generous donor doubled her donation.
“At that moment, it gave her an awareness and a realization that we need to continue this program to increase literacy.”
Watson knows firsthand the positive impact the center can have. Her son, a fourth grader now, didn’t especially like to read as a child.
“When he was in first and second grade, he didn’t have the confidence in reading and he didn’t have any desire to read,” Watson said. “Reading was almost a punishment to him.”
Watson thought the literacy center might make reading a more engaging pastime. She said the center has had a huge impact on her son.
“He started building that confidence and cultivating that culture of reading,” Watson said. “Now, he doesn’t want to stop reading — even if it’s time to go to bed or time to go to dinner.”
Despite widespread support, being a nonprofit in Jackson can be tough. According to the Jackson Hole Community Foundation, there are 221 nonprofits in the valley — saturating the landscape for those with money to give.
“The community has stood up and really helped the literacy center make up for their cuts,” Hansen said. “But what happens when you get a couple years out and get donor fatigue? There are a lot of generous people here but there are lots of groups looking for that money. It’s never easy and it’s never something you can take for granted.”
Teton Literacy Center is still in need of resources. Although the county is seeing an increase in the percentage of students reading at grade level — from 65 percent two years ago to 79 percent last year — Soltau said those who are behind just keep getting farther behind.
“We’re seeing an increase in the intensity of need,” she said. As older students progress through the grades, deficits can increase and make it harder to catch up — especially when the loss compounds over summer break.
Interested donors can sponsor a reader for a year at $1,200, for a semester at $600 or for a quarter at $300.
Luckily for Teton Literacy Center, Jacksonites value education.
“It’s obviously a critical benefit to our society,” Hansen said. “Every dollar we spend on early childhood education is really well spent in terms of the return we get as a society from a lifetime of someone who can read.”