The Right to Read and Write

by Pamela Kleibrink Thompson

There are many people in our community who can’t read this sentence. But they are finding help from the Learning Lab, Inc.

“Learning Lab began in 1991 as an adult literacy project of the Junior League of Boise to address the needs of the workforce of the future,” shares Ann Heilman, Executive Director, Learning Lab. “We began with one employee, who was the teacher as well.  There were 4 students and 4 volunteer tutors.   Classes began on the 4th floor of the Boise Public Library, but as the number of volunteers and students increased rapidly, more space was needed. Within a few years, we added a family literacy program where adult students could bring their young children with them and learn together. With generous financial support from the community, a second facility, The Anna Margaret Jones Center for Learning, was opened in Garden City in 2006. In 2014, classes expanded to include the Library! at Cole & Ustick. In 2016, a new Outreach program began to offer classes for low-income neighborhood apartments.  Over the past 25 years, we have provided basic skills education to more than 3,500 students.”

Heilman became involved with the Learning Lab in July 2007. “Everyone deserves the chance to learn to read and write.” She points out that being illiterate causes isolation and numerous problems, including not being able to understand instructions from a doctor or fill out application forms, or be able to read and sign permission slips for their  kids to go on field trips. For Heilman, literacy is a social justice issue. “Education is the foundation for society that has freedom. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect and be able to communicate. It’s hard to do that if you can’t read and write.”

One of the main funding sources for Learning Lab is their annual Lunch for Literacy event held on the first Friday in February. This year the guest author is Steven Rowley, author of the national bestseller, Lily and the Octopus. A popular event, the Lunch for Literacy usually sells out. Last year 920 people attended the event, which includes a silent auction of books autographed by the author as well as gift baskets and experiences built around a book. One of the highlights of the event is the presentation by a student of his/her experiences with Learning Lab.

“Learning Lab, Inc. is one of the best run and best service providing organizations I know,” states Jana Kemp, Former Learning Lab Board Member and Volunteer, Author and Facilitator, Meeting & Management Essentials. “People’s lives are positively and permanently affected! Lunch for Literacy is an amazing gathering of people supporting an organization that helps people help themselves and their children to lead better lives!  Lunch for Literacy continues to present great speakers, to be an on-time event, and to provide interesting ways to participate in fundraising activities for a terrific cause: LEARNING.”

“Current students often refer friends, neighbors and relatives,” shares Heilman. “Healthcare professionals also refer students to us. We try to partner with other nonprofits such as Head Start which often brings parents to our front door.  The students are assessed and are given individual lesson plans to meet their needs. Adults with literacy struggles may need more time in the program. Some students come from countries where they were not allowed to go to school.”

“We have 157 volunteer tutors who implement the lesson plans. The most important things the volunteers provide is a warm welcome and individual encouragement. The volunteers and students are the heart and soul of Learning Lab. It restores my faith in humanity and reminds me how awesome this community is.”

There is special training for volunteers “but a kind heart, patience, and understanding are the first qualifications.  We have an orientation session monthly called Learn About the Lab (see sidebar). We also have online training occasionally and seminars every other month.”

“Our students are my biggest source of inspiration.  Our donors too, as they express their faith in our mission.  President Obama, Sheryl Sandburg, Anne Lamott, Simon Sinek, Will Northrop, and Stephen Covey are a few of the incredible people who have inspired me.”

“We are always looking for opportunities to teach more classes and always looking for new venues to do so. We need to keep responding to the community’s needs.”

Heilman’s biggest challenge is fundraising and figuring out how they can expand the capacity enough to meet the needs of the community. “As the chief fundraiser, I need to know how Learning Lab can stay relevant and important to donors and find ways to gain new donors and successfully receive grants. We always have students on our waiting list for classes, which begin in September, January and June.” Often students come who want to improve their literacy skills, but the students who come for help with their GED are given priority “because they are so embarrassed. We need to get them in classes right away.”

There are a number of ways that Treasure Valley residents can help. “Like us on Facebook, sign up for our e-news, donate to pay for students’ classes, volunteer as a tutor or for other jobs at Learning Lab, encourage your favorite authors to donate signed books for our silent auction.”

“Tell your friends and family how important education is for everyone,” urges Heilman. “Spread the word that literacy is a ladder out of poverty.”

Lunch for Literacy
Friday: February 3, 2017
Boise Centre 11:30am- 1pm
In Learn About the Lab sessions, attendees hear from an educator, a volunteer tutor, and a student about why Learning Lab is important to them. Potential volunteers, supporters, or curious friends and family are invited.
Upcoming dates for Learn about the Lab are:

Thursday, January 19th, noon – Lunch

Wednesday, February 15th, 5 pm – 6 pm, Happy Hour

Tuesday, March 14th, noon – Lunch

Thursday, April 13th, Happy Hour

Wednesday, May 17th, noon –Lunch

To volunteer: Contact Learning Lab’s Volunteer Coordinator, Mary Jane Fields at








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