More Than Words

Literacyworks' mission to make readers of everybody

While the paint was still drying on the Literacyworks logo at the organization’s new office space in Petaluma, Paul Heavenridge got a knock on the door. His visitors were a mother and her two sons, stopping by to ask about the availability of literacy programs through the national nonprofit organization.

“We talked, and it made me curious about what was available locally,” says Heavenridge, who founded the organization in 2001 in Oakland and moved it to Petaluma three years ago.

“I talked to the Petaluma Education Foundation,” says Heavenridge, “and it turns out that there aren’t really any literacy programs in the schools.”

Further research revealed worrisome fissures. He saw a system in slow breakdown, with more library and community literacy programs closing their doors than opening them, effectively ending the possibilities for low-level child and adult learners to learn how to read and write.

“The national research that always motivates me the most is that 60 percent of the American population reads at a seventh-grade level or below,” says Heavenridge. “How can you get a better job? How can you be the best parent? The more literate our society is, the better we can make critical-thinking decisions.”

On a Tuesday afternoon in the meeting room of Literacyworks’ Foundry Wharf office space, Heavenridge’s enthusiasm for the organization’s impressive list of projects is kinetic. Since attaining nonprofit status in 2001, Literacyworks has provided technical, web and curriculum support to a coordinated network of state-run adult-literacy programs. They’ve also acted as an umbrella, or “incubator,” for programs like the Bay Area Literacy Coalition that have a goal of achieving nonprofit status.

Last October, Heavenridge saw the first realization of his dream for making Petaluma the “life-long learning capital” of the United States with the debut of Word Up!, a learning fair that drew over 1,500 people. The free, volunteer-run event offered live music, food, keynote speaker Anne Lamott and interactive exhibits on not just reading but community gardening, car mechanics, financial planning, parenting, coffee brewing and more.

At the same time, Heavenridge didn’t want to stray from Literacyworks original mission of helping to increase basic literacy skills. In August 2011, he established the Literacyworks fund through the Community Foundation of Sonoma County. “I really saw a need for fundraisers to keep these organizations going,” says Heavenridge.

The first such fundraiser promises liquid fun with Straight Up!, a vodka-cocktail-making competition and tasting event on March 8 showcasing bartenders from renowned restaurants like Cyrus and John Ash.

“The core of this is awareness and getting funding to keep these essential programs going,” explains Heavenridge. “In my mind, education is the key to everything. Without a literate population, we’re just going to fade away.”