On December 16, 2016, one of ProLiteracy’s co-founders, and the founder of Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), celebrated her 100th birthday. To mark this milestone birthday, all she wished for was for all adult learners to be able to gain access to the best-trained tutors so that they can improve their literacy skills and live a quality life.
She is no ordinary woman. She is Ruth Colvin, a legacy.
“Age is just a number. It’s what you do with that number that’s important.”
It was the year 1961 when Colvin first learned about the adult literacy crisis. She read a Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper article about the U.S. Census and was astonished to learn that in her hometown of Syracuse, New York, more than 11,000 adults could not read. Colvin knew that she had to step in and do something about the lack of initiative being made towards improving adult literacy rates in her community.
Colvin earned the support of Syracuse’s Church Women United (CWU) organization, which sponsored her local literacy volunteer recruitment effort, and in 1972, the movement rapidly developed into Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc.
“It was like the sky opening up.”
During her period of trial and error, Colvin discovered that traditional classroom methods had been replaced. Dr. Frank Green, head of Syracuse University’s reading clinic, introduced her to a new instructional method, which included the formation of community networks and how they empower adult learners. While transitioning to more modern methodologies, Colvin received guidance from 20 of Green’s PhD reading students who introduced her to “learning experience,” phonics, and other methods. Colvin molded this into a more engaging method by teaching students their own words from their own experiences. She would ask students about their interests, hobbies, and other topics most important to them.
“I’m still teaching—I love it. … You’re breaking down barriers; educational, racial, faith barriers. Once you become acquainted with your student, you become friends. … You see that people of other races, of other cultures, are wonderful people.”
– Ruth Colvin
Sharing Literacy, Friendship, and Awareness Around the World
Colvin’s literacy work prospered for more than four decades domestically and internationally. In just over 50 years, Colvin and her husband Robert traveled to more than 60 countries around the world. They were invited by various ministries, governments, and universities to provide literacy tutor training.
During her period of innovating the literacy movement, Colvin also published nine books, including Off the Beaten Path: Stories of People Around the World and A Way With Words, two of her more reflective pieces based on her literacy work. She also has received nine honorary doctorates. Her efforts earned her the highest award for volunteerism in 1987 from President Ronald Reagan, induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006 from President George W. Bush.
Joining Forces to Change the World
In 2002, Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc., and Laubach Literacy International, which was founded by Dr. Frank C. Laubach in 1955, merged and became ProLiteracy Worldwide. Today, Colvin continues to devote herself to adult literacy as a lifetime member of ProLiteracy’s board of directors. Additionally, she is an honorary member of the board of directors of Literacy New York and is on the board of directors and a tutor at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Syracuse.
ProLiteracy recently celebrated Colvin’s legacy and honored her at a gathering of ProLiteracy staff, community members, board members, and friends.
“Because you can’t read doesn’t mean you’re dumb. In fact, you’re really very smart, because you’re able to cope without the skills that we take for granted. So once you can tap that and give [students] the self-confidence, and give them the basic skills, they can do anything.”
As a pioneer of the adult literacy movement, Colvin is a gift to us all. She has devoted her life to teaching hundreds of individuals to read and continues to do so. The unique training programs that have supported thousands of adults to gain basic literacy skills are a result of her passion and dedication to the movement. At 100, she will continue her legacy and work to make her birthday wish come true.
Thank you, Ruth Colvin. You’re a treasure and an inspiration to us all.
Celebrating a Legacy