We moved to Tyler, Texas 14 years ago this week. Expecting our first child, the decision had already been made that I would be a stay-at-home mom. After setting up the new house, taking many naps and watching a LOT of Oprah, I realized I needed to use the next few months to make myself useful.

I knew that Barbara Bush was a big proponent of literacy programs, and I loved to read, so I looked in the phone book (yes, the phone book) to see if Tyler had such a program. I didn’t even call – instead I showed up the next day and said I was interested in volunteering. Nancy Hill and Nancy Crawford (Executive Director) met me with open arms and went to work matching me with a student. Their enthusiasm for the Literacy Council was infectious and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Soon I met Steve. He was in his early 30s, held a job and had a 7-year old son. He came to the Literacy Council for help because his reading was so poor, he didn’t like going to a new restaurant for fear of not being able to order off the menu. It was a terrible secret he carried with him. He was embarrassed and lacked self-confidence. Most importantly, Steve wanted to read to his son and be an example to him.

Over the next few months, we met once a week for our one-on-one tutoring sessions. He practiced reading passages, much like my kids were later assigned in 2nd or 3rd grade. He read aloud, slowly sounding out each syllable, and we answered comprehension questions together. Like many people that come to LCOT he needed someone – a mentor – to tell him that he could do this. And he could. And he did. His reading improved by leaps and bounds, as did his confidence. One day we walked to the library together to get a library card. Steve had no idea that he could go to the public library and check out books for free. He couldn’t wait to take his son.

One day, Steve didn’t show up. Nancy Crawford told me that sometimes this happens, and that’s okay. I made a difference in a virtual stranger’s life. And he in mine.

Life got busy with another baby, play-dates, part-time writing and more. I’ve stayed connected to the Literacy Council, and Nancy, even serving on the Board of Directors. In fact, this past December ended my second board term. I wasn’t sure I could walk away from this organization, this awesome board or the work they were doing to cure the rampant adult literacy in Smith County.

Serendipitously, 14 years to the day after moving to Tyler I was back with my LCOT friends Nancy Crawford and Nancy Hill, attending a Donor Luncheon. But this was different. I was there as the new Community Relations Coordinator. And part of my job today was to place thank you notes written by students at each place setting. Of course, I read all 127. With tears in my eyes I was reminded why I walked into the Literacy Council in the first place.

You see, this organization doesn’t give people money. It doesn’t hand out food or clothing. It gives a much bigger gift. It’s the gift that allowed 35 year old Tammy Clements, a high-school dropout earning minimum wage and single mother of four to earn a GED, then a Bachelor’s Degree, now a Master’s Degree – which in turn has led to a very successful career at Mother Frances Hospital. It’s the gift that gave Steve the confidence to read to his son and try a new restaurant. It’s the gift that allows 2400 East Texans the confidence and skills to get better jobs and provide for their families – the gift of literacy.

Before I left the cards behind, I wrote down some of my favorite notes from students. I think they speak for themselves:

Because you gave I am learning to read. I am enjoying it. I am sticking with the program. – Charles, age 56

Because you gave, I can move on with my dreams of changing the world through helping people. I am going to be a nurse, then get my teaching license. Afterwards, I plan to go into politics. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you. God has blessed both of us. – Darren

When I started attending GED classes I was on a third grade reading level, now I am on a twelfth grade level. I am more confident than ever. I will be attending college. I am a 52 year old woman. You have made a life-long dream come true. You’ve given me the gift of a secure future. Thank you. – Linda, age 52