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Life's Voices: Ginger Duiven Leads Efforts to Increase Adult Literacy

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Sara Risley
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As part of our year-end series "Life's Voices," we profile Ginger Duiven, executive director of Literacy Services of Wisconsin.

The series features people in the community who’ve devoted their lives or careers to helping others.

At Literacy Services of Wisconsin, volunteers help adults learn to read, to speak English or get their GED. Duiven has seen the skills it provides completely change lives.

“It’s very typical for people to come in with a deep sense of shame and embarrassment, especially those who have been non-readers and are concealing it from the rest of the world,” Duiven says. “It’s a big source of embarrassment for people…they come in with their head down, looking downward, kind of slumped shoulders, the typical features that you would expect from someone who doesn’t have any confidence. And by the time they leave, they’re holding themselves upright, they’re making eye contact, they’re smiling. I mean, it changes just how they are in the world.”

In one classroom, adults work toward their GEDs. Photos of recent graduates, in blue caps and gowns, line a wall. In the other two classrooms, adults learn to read or to speak English.

“In this particular area it’s incredibly diverse. People come to us who are illiterate in their own language and then we have students who come to us who may actually have multiple languages, just not English,” she says.

Duiven became executive director a year ago. Her earlier career included a decade at The Urban Ecology Center, doing marketing and development. When she competed her MBA at Alverno, Duiven felt compelled to take on a new challenge.

“My master’s degree changed my life completely. It was something I set out to do kind of later in life and after I did it I thought, wow, you know, I can really see how these intense educational experiences, at any point in life, can make huge impacts on peoples’ lives,” Duiven says.

Literacy Services serves between 400 and 500 people a year. They pay just $25 to enroll, for however long it takes to achieve their goals.

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Credit Erin Toner
Ginger Duiven sits in a classroom at Literacy Services of Wisconsin where students learn or improve their English.

Duiven recalls the story of Neri, a woman who came to literacy services with limited reading skills.

“And her motivation was her children. She had four kids at home and she could see that they were at that stage that they were kind of watching her closely and mimicking her and kind of doing whatever she did.”

Duiven says Neri worked for a year-and-a-half on basic literacy, then began working on her high school equivalency.

“While she was in pursuit of her GED, all four of her kids went from being C and D students to becoming A and B students and ending up on the honor role by the time she graduated,” she says.

Duiven says Neri’s success also propelled her mother and two sisters to enroll in programs at Literacy Services. They’re all made possible by hundreds of volunteers, who work one-on-one with students.

"About a quarter of our tutors have been with us for four years or longer, and that means they’ve been here every single week for at least one, 90-minute session with a student for that period of time,” Duiven says.

As Duiven completes her first year at Literacy Services, she’s thinking about how it can grow to better serve the community. She hopes to expand computer training, and teach people to better understand and interact with the health care system.

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