Meet Lisa Hembry, president and CEO of Literacy Instruction for Texas or LIFT. Hembry heads the agency that was founded in 1961 by the National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Dallas Section. Since then more than 45,000 low-literate adults have learned to read at LIFT. Hembry joined LIFT in 2010 after a rich background in government and corporate sectors. She served as president of DallasiMedia Network, four years as Dallas County Treasurer, two years as CEO of Dallas Historical Society and eight years as news director and public affairs director with KRLD and KKDA radio.
Hembry continues to show her dedication, serving on several boards including Human Rights Initiative, UT Southwestern Medical Center Board of Visitors and Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Council. We wanted to know more about Hembry and LIFT and she was kind enough to answer a few questions:
Dawn Tongish: Please begin by telling us about Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT).
Lisa Hembry: We believe reading is a human right. Since 1961, LIFT has been enhancing lives and strengthening communities by teaching adults to read. The only agency in North Texas serving very low-literate adults, LIFT provides adult basic literacy services through GED preparation as well as English language immersion classes to over 5,000 adults annually with the help of more than 350 trained volunteer teachers, in Dallas, Collin and Tarrant Counties. Reading is a basic job qualification. We also offer additional jobs kills training in all of our classes, using evidence based curricula, to help our students succeed at work and at home.
DT: What are your duties at Literacy Instruction for Texas?
LH: My job as President and CEO is to inspire, motivate and encourage our team, volunteers and adult learners to do the best that we can do in support of LIFT’s mission to teach adults to read. The best part of my responsibilities is to empower our adult learners to reach their personal and professional goals especially to create a better life for themselves and their families.
DT: How did you become involved with Literacy Instruction for Texas, and why are you so passionate about the work being done with the organization?
LH: I learned about LIFT when I was president of Dallas IMedia Network and had the pleasure of interviewing a staff member and an adult learner. It made me aware of the magnitude of the illiteracy problem and the dire consequences for all of us if this is not addressed. Later, when the board sought new leadership I was recruited to provide staff leadership as President. Let me just say it is the most rewarding position I have ever had. I am passionate about our work because I love to read. I am an avid reader. And everyday I see the impact that learning to read makes on our students, many of whom have struggled with illiteracy their entire lives. It was life changing for me when one of our students shared in amazement that she is now making more money than she has ever made and feels like she can finally live not just struggle.
DT: In our modern world it is hard to imagine someone not learning to read or read well. Why and how does that happen? What is the impact on a person's life when they aren't literate?
LH: It is difficult to imagine. Our students are smart, driven individuals and for native English speakers that have made it to adulthood without being able to read it is usually because of an underlying learning difference such as Dyslexia. The illiterate individual is unable to manage the tasks of daily living that are so easy for those of us who can read. They cannot apply for a job, help their children with homework, advocate on their own behalf or fulfill their potential as a member of society. Access to literacy training significantly reduces someone’s reliance on social services and that affects all of us.
DT: How can the people of North Texas and beyond help meet your needs for 2014? What are your biggest needs?
LH: LIFT is a privately funded agency that has served the North Texas region for over 53 years. We receive no government funding and rely on the investment in generosity of private funders to support our mission to teach adults to read. LIFT’s Bend the Trend Campaign to reduce adult illiteracy in our community requires collaboration with agencies that serve our population. Ideal partners have available space to offer classes in neighborhoods with high poverty and illiteracy rates. This is the centerpiece of our partnership model to offer literacy classes where people live, work and worship.
DT: How great is your need for volunteers?
LH: One of our greatest resources is people. We have an ongoing need for compassionate empathetic and willing participants in our goal to offer more classes to more people. Our strategic plan is to expand the number of partner sites significantly over the next five years. In order to do that we must have trained volunteers who are willing share their knowledge to help other people live a better life. We currently have 350 volunteers who teach classes, mentor and serve in the computer lab including in our English immersion classes at fourteen locations across the Metroplex, our GED preparation program that includes computer Essentials, and our Adult Basic Literacy classes.
DT: What has been your most memorable moment at LIFT?
LH: There have been many memorable moments among those was our 2013 GED graduating class of 21 people many of whom never thought they could achieve this lifelong goal. We have thousands of students who come through our doors with inspiring stories but former student Dadrian Pearson is very close to my heart. At 13 he and his 3 siblings were abandoned by their mother and went to live with their grandmother. He was forced to drop out of school to help support his family. For several years, he held a well-paying job in a warehouse until his position became automated. All of a sudden he was unemployed, with people to feed and clothe without his high school diploma or GED. That’s when Dadrian found LIFT. Determined to get his GED and make a better life for his family He worked really hard for almost two years, earned his GED and he now has full time job with benefits and educational reimbursement. Even better, his fiancé Jessica enrolled in LIFT classes and is now very close to earning her GED.
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