The Story of Perry County Literacy Council
For more than 35 years, PCLC has evolved to meet the growing and changing needs of Perry County residents. From our humble beginnings as a Laubach Literacy partner to high school equivalency preparation and workforce programs to our new social work office, our top priority has always been to help people to realize their goals of self-sufficiency and independence. The following is a brief overview of how PCLC got started and how the organization has changed over the years.
Years of Learning
Co-Founder and Life Board Member Lane Partner has been around since the beginning. When asked why she has chosen to stay involved with PCLC for all of this time, she said, “My reason for staying involved have changed over the years. I have a lot of reasons right now. I have never seen an organization that can take care of people the way [PCLC] does and gets the results they get.”
In the early 80s, Dale Lesperance approached Partner with her concerns about illiteracy in Perry County. With a $100 grant from the New Bloomfield Civic Club, the two organized a Laubach Literacy training for around 10-12 people. “We were just a group of people with no formal organization whatsoever,” Partner said. Juniata County Literacy Council loaned PCLC some books to get started.
Partner and Lesperance went to local churches and clubs to spread the word that literacy tutoring was available in Perry County. Partner met with interested students and then paired them with tutors with whom she thought they would do well. “That first year we worked with 12 or 15 people. Father Larry at St. Bernard’s let us use his house,” Partner said. “It went on very informally like that for a few years.”
The group learned that the State was offering grants to help literacy organizations continue and expand their work. Partner wrote the State, and PCLC received its first grant of about $8,000 and it was able to hire their first staff. “There were many times those first years that I wasn’t sure we were going to make it,” she said.
Eventually, when the grant amount reached $25,000, PCLC was able to hire Wendy Lindstrom as Executive Director. “Wendy stayed with us for about 2 or 3 years, and she got us pretty well organized,” said Partner. “Mary Landis donated a little storefront to us on Second Street [Newport]; there was no heat or anything.”
Around 1984, PCLC relocated to the basement of the Newport Public Library. “Wendy did the 501 (c)(3),” said Partner. “We put together a board and a budget – PCLC was running well.”
1993 marked a time of major change for PCLC. Carol Steiner became the new Executive Director, and she brought with her several ideas that would revolutionize PCLC’s work. Her top priority was to help the students and the staff to become computer literate. Steiner also recognized the need for PCLC to undertake a significant fundraising effort.
Meanwhile, PCLC Life Board Member Anne Chappelka moved to the area and immediately became interested in PCLC’s mission. She promptly joined the Board at almost the same time as Steiner became Executive Director. Sadly, Anne passed in the Fall of 2021.
Partner had rotated off of the Board for less than one year when she was convinced to come back out of retirement. She describes sitting down at her first meeting with Steiner. “Carol told me, ‘I’m good at fundraising…I just love fundraising.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God! This woman is a miracle’…I mean, we’d done bake sales – that’s what we did for fundraising!”
That’s when the Race for Reading was born, and it became PCLC’s most ambitious fundraiser. A dedicated committee of around 20 volunteers from all over Perry County came together to support PCLC’s work, which had also grown significantly over the years. Chappelka remembers back to that time, saying, “Our main source of fundraising income was selling ads for the Race program.”
The committee didn’t realize it at the time, but they had sown the seeds for PCLC’s first public relations campaign. Selling ads door-to-door around the county, allowed volunteers to explain PCLC’s mission and helped to galvanize the supporters’ commitment to the cause. Each year, as the list of supporters, grew, the Race quickly became the social event of Perry County, attracting 400-500 guests at Penn National Race Track in Grantville.
Everything was not always rosy for PCLC. Tragedy struck in November 1997 when Steiner suddenly passed away following a car accident. Chappelka, who was Board President, happened to be the only member of the Board who was not already working full-time, so she graciously signed on as acting Director until Steiner’s replacement was found. “Fortunately, Carol was well-respected at the State level,” said Chappelka. “Her connections made it possible for the Department of Education to send people to train us so that we could keep going.”
By September 2000, PCLC had outgrown its home in the basement of the Newport Public Library and moved to its new quarters on Market Street in Newport. By that time, the paid staff had grown to five part-time employees and about 150 volunteers. PCLC was serving about 200 clients with adult literacy, computer skills training, ESL, GED preparation, prison GED, and participation in Head Start programs.
During the tenure of Executive Director Susan Risner, the Board of Newport School District voted unanimously in October 2003 to offer its facilities as a GED test site for Perry County. Before this landmark decision, Perry County residents had to drive to Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) to take their GED tests. In 2005, more than 65 adults received their high school equivalency diplomas at the Newport District site. The GED was booming in Perry County.
Breaking Down Barriers
When Risner retired in 2007, Kathleen Bentley was hired as Executive Director. “Sue was so organized, and she started me off from a very good place,” said Bentley. Risner continued as a devoted tutor at PCLC until just before her untimely passing from cancer a few years later.
Bentley’s 35-year award-winning teaching career in Special Education at Loysville Youth Development Center made her an ideal candidate to take PCLC to the next level. Her philosophy of treating everyone with dignity and compassion helped to gain the trust of her students — which enabled them, in turn, to trust in the process. However, her work hadn’t prepared her for the lack of supportive services available to Perry County residents. “At YDC, my students had everything they needed – food, clothing, and housing,” said Bentley. “As I started my work in the public sector, I couldn’t believe how many of our students were going without basic necessities. It broke my heart.”
Bentley immediately resolved to find ways to help people to move forward toward their goals of self-sufficiency. In 2010, PCLC relocated to a much larger space on South Fifth Street. There, she was able to invite partnering agencies to co-locate with PCLC to provide workforce assistance and other mutually-beneficial services. Also, sharing expenses made the partnerships cost-effective. Bentley also established a scholarship fund so that PCLC could pay for at least half of the cost of GED testing.
Bentley noticed that, in a rural region such as Perry County, the lack of public transportation meant that many people who wanted to pursue their high school equivalency couldn’t get to class. So Bentley wrote a grant with Highmark to provide a new van for Perry Apex Services Unlimited (PASU) and funds to allow people to receive a door-to-door ride to PCLC for as long as they needed to earn their GED. “PASU’s mission meshed perfectly with ours,” said Bentley. “Their drivers are in a program that helps them to find work, and we are thrilled to support their service delivery model and provide our students with a ride to classes in the process.”
Another urgent need that shocked Bentley was the sheer number of county residents who, for one reason or another, did not have a photo ID, birth certificate, or social security card. “You can’t get a job, a bank account, housing or much else without proper ID,” said Bentley. “I couldn’t believe that people in need were being denied vital services because they didn’t have these documents. They cost so little, but they can open so many doors.” Bentley wrote for funds to get any or all of these items for a single family member or an entire household.
Often the need arose for discretionary funding to help clients with other employment support services and Bentley found the money for that, too. “Many times, just a few dollars can solve a problem that unlocks the key to success,” said Bentley.
In 2011, the Council joined the Tri-County Adult Education Consortium, a collaboration of adult education providers funded by the PA Department of Education Bureau of Postsecondary and Adult Education to serve Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry Counties.
PCLC started offering various nationally-recognized classes, such as: Teknimedia, which provides training in the Microsoft Office suite of products; National Retail Federation customer service classes; and National Restaurant Association Food Handler certification. The courses, which are offered at no cost to the students, provide credentials for students to use in the pursuit of a job.
Most recently, our supportive Board of Directors has started the PCLC Endowment Fund in honor of Kathleen Bentley. With funding from the Perry County Commissioners, we have opened a social work office that offers a full-time social worker for all residents. And finally, we’re putting the finishing touches on an early childhood resource center which will provide childcare for our students as they work on their high school equivalency diploma and job searching efforts.
With the help of its supporters, PCLC continues to grow and thrive. For more information on these and other services that we provide, please see the Programs tab.