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Purpose Prize Fellow 2015
A lawyer turned social entrepreneur brings literacy to El Salvadoran children by empowering teachers and building libraries for schools.
I grew up in rural Western Illinois. My parents were the first in their families to go to college. So all my life, education was a priority, as was community service. My father was a country lawyer who worked until the end of his life, at nearly 87, and I became a lawyer as well.
In 2002, I was young, healthy and independent enough to retire and devote my life to community and public service. Working on projects in Uzbekistan and Armenia, in Chicago and South Carolina, I began to understand literacy as a tool of self-empowerment in the developing world.
ConTextos began as a class project by a Harvard grad student, Debra Gittler. We met in a social entrepreneurship class where we were tasked with developing a business plan for a hypothetical non-governmental organization (NGO). Debra had lived in El Salvador and understood the culture and the great need there. I had become increasingly passionate about social entrepreneurship as a vehicle for transformative, sustainable and meaningful change.
With Central America facing enormous education deficits, we had a remarkable opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and violence. One in five Salvadoran students do not reach third grade, and two in five don’t get to high school, setting the stage for poverty, crime, unemployment, trafficking and migration. Together, Debra and I came up with a vision that was unprecedented in Central America: to create an environment for children, their teachers and their families to develop critical and analytical reading and comprehension skills, and to build turnkey libraries in public schools to support that goal. I thought, let’s find a way to make it happen.
- Literacy programs serve 72 Salvadoran schools, reaching 500 teachers and 27,500 students; 20 new schools were added in 2015, toward a goal of 500 schools by 2020.
- Built, funded and staffed the only school libraries in El Salvador’s 4,900 schools.
- Students’ literacy levels have increased to above-average rates, setting the stage for improved academic/economic success and countering poverty, unemployment, trafficking and migration.
Debra brought academic knowledge, cultural literacy and drive. I knew how to build, fund and manage NGOs. Leveraging our complementary skill sets, we raised $40,000 from friends and family, got our 501(c)3 status and launched in three schools in January 2011. In 2012, we started a tablet-based writing program, then a digital e-learning platform in 2014.
As of 2015, ConTextos has built 72 turnkey libraries for schools, reaching 500 teachers and 27,500 children. Our students have made substantial gains in reading, comprehension, writing and self-expression. Notably, our third-graders are reading above grade level, a key predictor of eventual academic success. Our libraries are the only libraries in El Salvador’s 4,900 public schools.
We have brought our program into prisons, juvenile justice facilities, and institutions where women are incarcerated with their young children, where there is no early-childhood instruction, beyond our books. ConTextos has become a tool for healing and reflection. It is hard work, but we are up to the challenge. Nobody else does what we do.
When asked if my work makes a difference, I answer, “Ask me in 20 years.” The work is generational, not transactional – that’s why I invest my time and resources in working with and mentoring young people. They will continue the work long after I cannot.