These were all everyday scenarios for John Brown, a 43-year-old custodian with the City of Phoenix, Arizona. Even though Brown graduated from high school, he couldn’t read much beyond simple letters. "If I was driving, and I would need to turn on Grant, I’d see a name that started with G and guess that was the right street," Brown says. At work, Brown felt like a burden whenever he would ask someone to read instructions to him. But the worst frustration of all for Brown was not being able to help his four children with their homework as they were going through school.
That’s all behind Brown today. Shortly after he joined the City of Phoenix eight years ago, he learned about a literacy program offered by HR. The Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County (LVMC) program started as a pilot in 1988, after the City of Phoenix learned through a citywide training-needs analysis that many of their long-term employees weren’t promotable because of a lack of basic skills. More than 950 employees from 13 different departments have participated in the program, which Donald E. Walsh, personnel director for the City of Phoenix, says "improves the quality of life for employees—personally and professionally."
"When I first heard of the classes, I knew they were for me," Brown says. But while he wanted to better himself by learning new skills, he gave the literacy program a lot of thought before signing up. "Was it really going to help? Would I accomplish anything?"
He answered those questions a year later when he graduated from the program. Not all people who start the literacy program see it to the end, but Brown did. "I motivated myself to take this program," he says. "If I can’t motivate myself, it won’t get done."
He also gives credit to his supervisors and to his family. "When I was going to the school, the supervisors took time out and had patience and pushed me to do well." As for his family, Brown gratefully says, "My wife is someone who will always back me up [when it comes to] anything to upgrade me. She’s happy with what I did."
Indeed, Susan Shoemaker, manager of the city’s Employee Development Division, relates that there was overwhelming joy and even a few tears from Brown’s family members when they watched him graduate. "John beamed with pride when he told us about how he can now read the mail, street signs and the notes his wife leaves for him," says Shoemaker.
Involved with the program for almost 10 years, Shoemaker has seen many success stories like Brown’s. It’s Brown’s enthusiasm toward the program that sets his accomplishments apart from the rest as extra special in her mind. "He has seemed so thankful to have had the opportunity to do this," Shoemaker says.
And Brown says he is thankful. "I would like to go as far as I can go. If I can better myself, I can better my family. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself—there’s no reason for that when they have places [where] you can get help."
Shoemaker is impressed by Brown’s newfound self confidence and desire to constantly find ways to use what he has learned. Brown’s supervisors now sometimes ask him to put together, give out and explain assignments to others. That feels good to someone who used to "learn by listening and by just doing what others were doing. [The program] has changed my life a lot," Brown says. "I feel wonderful, like I really accomplished something."
When a program that’s meant to impact the bottom line has this type of personal impact as well, it should surely be deemed a success. Shoemaker certainly agrees, and considers it somewhat of a personal triumph. "It’s a wonderful feeling to know that we helped make that happen—that because our program is in place, John is making a difference for the city, for himself and in the lives of his children."
Workforce, September 1998, Vol. 77, No. 9, p. 112.