Literacy for Life

Wanda Turpin stands at the front of large, airy room on a recent Tuesday morning and captures the attention of a group of 13 volunteers-in-training wanting to inspire and teach at-risk school children.

“Be an encourager,” instructs the director of school-based literacy programs at Norfolk’s Life Enrichment Center. “Most of these kids just want someone to be there for them.”

Her words put us at ease, and this place itself feels just as safe and welcoming, with warm, mustard yellow walls, candles decorating the tables and signs on the walls displaying motivational phrases like “Excellence,” “Teamwork” and “Attitude.” It’s easy to forget that just a few steps away lies a busy downtown Norfolk street with light rail trains whizzing by and construction workers’ drills busting apart pavement.

volunteering with life enrichment center

Wanda cautions the trainees to make sure they remain committed to tutoring a Norfolk elementary student for an hour each week throughout the entire school year.

“These kids really need someone to show up,” she says. “If you are having a horrible day, leave it on the steps of the school and, if you must, pick it up on your way out.”

The kids who Wanda speaks of are 200 students at 10 Norfolk Title 1 schools that partner with the LEC. The schools identify at-risk children who need help with literacy, and LEC trains volunteer tutors who offer weekly one-on-one help that they hope will bring them up to the appropriate reading level and, just as important, provide them with a consistent mentor.

life enrichment center founder kevin turpinLEC founder Kevin Turpin stresses the importance of making a difference in these students early in their elementary careers. He tells me that children who read on or above grade level by the end of the third grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school.

“The first three years you learn to read, and after that you read to learn,” he says.

Kevin explains that he was a full-time minister at a multi-ethnic church back in 2003 when he felt the call to do something more. 

“My heart has always been in outreach,” he says. “I felt a pressing need to do more than prep for a weekend service.”

But he admits that it took some time after first establishing LEC for the organization to really find its niche in childhood literacy and grow to what it is today. What started as a relationship with one school in 2007 has now grown to 10, and other programs have been added like adult literacy tutoring and a summer camp for urban youth.

Kevin says in the future he hopes to expand the programs to schools in other cities like Virginia Beach and Suffolk.

After the end of tutor training, I get the opportunity to join Sandra Christmas, LEC’s school-based literacy coordinator, on a visit to LEC partner school Ingleside Elementary.

Principle Dr. Alana Balthazar greets us at the front desk and gives Sandra an exuberant hug. She’s practically bouncing off the walls with excitement as she leads us down the hallway and into her school’s brand new literacy lab, furnished with computers, desks and an interactive white board. She explains that LEC provides the labs to the school as a place for the tutors to work with students using computer literacy software, but that it’s available to all of her Ingleside teachers and students for the majority of the school day.

Soon enough a line of eager first-graders come streaming into the room, take their seats and start clicking and beeping their way through a series of educational games.

life enrichment center computer lab norfolk

Their bright and unsullied faces reminds me of something Kevin said at the end of the training-session video that had everyone in the room nodding in unison.

 “If one child is changed because of this,” he said, “to me it’s worth it all.”

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