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Literary Services of Wisconsin celebrated its 50th year of providing reading classes to undereducated and English as a Second Language students — and it all began at First Congregational Church of Wauwatosa.

Longtime church member Gordon Ralph first heard the world-famous Dr. Frank Laubach speak about the need for literacy at a Baptist assembly in Green Lake in 1965. Laubach, a missionary dubbed the 'Apostle of Literacy,' created methods for teaching literacy skills and is credited with bringing reading and writing skills to millions.

When Laubach asked who would start a local chapter of literacy services in Wisconsin, Ralph stepped forward.

He first looked for volunteers within First Congregational.

'I made 34 phone calls and 32 said 'yes' — all were from the church,' Ralph said.

After raising funds to send one of their volunteers to Baltimore to receive training, the group held their first meeting at Christ Presbyterian Church on 20th and Walnut Streets in Milwaukee. The group's initial focus was to teach reading and writing to illiterate adults in the city.

A 'little miracle' happened at that first meeting, Ralph said, when one of their volunteers decided to take the literacy workshop and adapt it for use in teaching English as a second language.

By the end of 1965, members of the group had held 20 to 30 similar workshops, training tutors in 20 counties in Wisconsin.

'It's people helping people, and that's what I love — it's a very loving, caring, sharing thing, and heaven knows the world needs that,' Ralph said.

Ralph also accompanied Laubach for three weeks to Kenya in 1965 to launch the 'Kenya National Literacy Campaign' in partnership with the Kenyan Literacy Center and the Kenyan government.

Now 84 years old, Ralph lives in a retirement community in Florida with his wife, Jacquie.

Pursuing the same goal

On Sept. 17, 2015, First Congregational Church received an award honoring the growth and success of the Milwaukee chapter of Literacy Services of Wisconsin. Ralph also received a plaque, and drove up from Florida to attend the award banquet.

'Today, we are still doing the same kind of work we did 50 years ago,' Literacy Services of Wisconsin Executive Director Ginger Duiven said. 'We've gotten a little bit more professional in the curriculum we use and the way we train our volunteers, but we're basically doing the same thing.'

Though the organization is now staffed, Literacy Services of Wisconsin still relies heavily on volunteers. About 400 volunteers serve 23,600 hours a year.

'Our longest-serving tutors have been serving for 25 years,' Duiven said. 'It's amazing how people find ways to change the world one person at a time.'

Literacy Services of Wisconsin operates on a 'one-on-one' system of teaching, and offers instruction for basic adult education, a GED program and an English-language learning program that is taught to people from about 50 different countries.

Literacy Services did more than teach reading — volunteers helped their students with other goals, such as communicating with their children, learning how to use a bus schedule, finding jobs and other individual goals.

'Each one was its own story,' Ralph said. 'I can think of people who went out learning reading and writing, got their GED, went on to college and then came back and worked for literacy services.'

'There is still a surprising amount of need for this service,' Duiven said. 'Most of us don't realize that there are people who can't read or write around us ... people can conceal their inability to read.'

Located at 555 North Plankinton Avenue in Milwaukee, the organization always welcomes new volunteers. For more information, visit www.literacyservices.org.

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