Fifty Ways #14 — Organize a Yearly Back-to-School Fair

Many churches across Texas and elsewhere have been busy organizing back-to-school fairs for months in preparation for the upcoming school year. Clearly the need is overwhelming. Many children are dependent on the kindness of others for new uniforms, haircuts, backpacks and more to begin school. And yet I wonder what it would feel like if one of my children were in one of those lines. I’m sure I would be grateful. But I also wonder what it feels like to be in line.


So, I’m curious about what churches and other groups are doing to help empower parents as they do the best they can for their children. Several years ago I observed a group of parents who had organized donated backpacks. When the children came for their backpacks, they received the gift from one of the parents – not one of the project sponsors though I’m sure everyone was aware of the source of the gifts.


Thinking about what it feels like to receive such donations – especially in the context of school supplies or food items at a food pantry – moves us in the direction of cultural competency. Ministries that seek to be culturally competent in how they do what they do move beyond cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity to change their approach in serving. Something to think about…

Blessings to all who share resources – especially with children preparing for school this fall.

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Fifty Ways #29 — Begin an Adult Literacy Program

The judge ordered him to pay child support – and to get a GED. He did not have a high school diploma but secured a job flipping hamburgers. It lasted an hour. He could not read the part about holding the pickles on the screen in front of him. He went to the local literacy center for help. The director found that his reading level was second grade. All she could do for him in the near term was to write a letter to the judge–a letter that described the lengthy and difficult journey to GED for him.
In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Texas tied with California for the lowest percentage of its population 25 or older who has a high school diploma or a GED credential. According to the Texas Workforce Investment Council, some 4.3 million Texans met the federal requirements of qualifying for adult education in 2011–they were over age 16, not in school, did not have a high school diploma or a GED credential or speak, read or write English well.

GED sample
Could you pass the GED? The new GED – test for General Educational Development. It’s normed to a 40% fail rate for last year’s high school seniors. And it’s online. And you have to be able to “keyboard” 25 words per minute for the writing portion of the test. Good news: they provide an online calculator for the math section. You just plug in the data for those formulas for the math section. Remember those? The new test will not only include interactive math problems but will also require test takers to analyze social studies passages and demonstrate critical thinking through essays with those keyboarding skills.
You can find resources in your community to help adults prepare for the GED — assuming their reading skills are up to par (say ninth grade). The website for the Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning has a directory of literacy providers: But many adults are not ready to begin study for the GED. They need help with ABC. Or ABE. You can find resources for adult basic education on this list of providers – just not enough. More are needed.

So consider #29 on the list of 50: Begin an adult literacy program helping adults with reading and GED preparation. That’s what H.D. White did in Amarillo. He’ll be honored in August at the Literacy Texas Conference as the Volunteer of the Year. Way to go H.D! Who’s next? Contact Literacy Connexus about how your church can begin to help adults learn to read and write better.

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Fifty Ways #23 — Teachers Rock

What would be most effective in improving education in the Lone Star State? Increase teacher pay? Increase school funding? Reduce standardized tests? Yes. Not surprising responses to a recent poll by the Texas Tribune. Also among the top suggestions was Encourage teaching as a profession. The first half of Way #23 of the list of 50 Ways Your Church Can Bless Your Community Through Literacy. The second half? Honor teachers in your congregation. Logically when you do one, you do the other.


Picture this as a part of a pastor’s greeting or sermon in May or June: “A special thanks to all the teachers in the congregation. Another year invested in young lives. Would you please stand? You make a big difference in the lives of our children and youth. We appreciate you! And children and youth here today, you do well to consider teaching as a career choice. Think about following in the footsteps of teachers you admire.”

Or, in late August, show this lively video created by Preston Trail Community Church, to show appreciation and give teachers a boost before heading back to the classroom. (This is one of many inspiring examples of the 50 Ways included in the electronic version here on our website.)


Consider teachers you admire. Many computer passwords are linked to security questions such as “Who was your favorite teacher?” Who was yours? Is it possible to drop a note or an e-mail today? And who are the teachers in your congregation? I can think of several in mine: active and retired. One recently retired educator in our congregation – Caroline Bell – is on the board of Literacy Connexus. She leads our church in affirming the teachers at the school we adopted. A monthly snack or other reminder that they are appreciated means so much.

Back to the future: today’s students. I’m happy to report that I know a couple of young men at my church who are preparing to become teachers. Something they observed inspired them to consider teaching as a profession.

Good job, teachers!

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Fifty Ways #33 — Thoughts for Flag Day

Right there on the 50 Ways list, she’s flying. On this Flag Day, 2014, George M. Cohan’s lyrics come to mind:

You’re a grand old flag,
You’re a high flyin’ flag
And forever in peace may you wave . . .

Fifty Ways Flag

Many will fly flags today. Consider this radical act of patriotism, too. It’s one of the 50 Ways Your Church Can Bless Your Community Through Literacy:

33. Encourage ethnic diversity in your church and awareness of the accompanying needs of non-English speakers and readers.

What’s the connection? In the midst of emotional rhetoric about immigration reform in Washington and elsewhere, Emma Lazarus’s poem fixed at the base of the Statue of Liberty reminds us of our heritage and opportunity.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(The entire poem The New Colossus is worth reading; a poignant challenge for America at a crossroads politically and otherwise.)

statue of liberty

Here is an action plan for today and tomorrow . . . simple steps as a precursor to #33:

Compare the faces, the colors and the languages of those in line with you in commerce today (Walmart?) and those in the pew with you tomorrow. Disconnect or congruence?

For many around this hungry, war-torn globe, Old Glory still represents hope and opportunity. Symbolically, it is linked to the torch in New York harbor lifted by the “New Colossus.” Practically, it is as real only as the attitudes and actions of those who recite the Pledge and fly the flags. People have come to this country for many reasons. One thing is certain, how we respond to those who are different from us is a reflection of our sense of God’s working in the world. By encouraging ethnic diversity and awareness of needs in our congregations, we take beginning steps that can lead to ministry and authentic witness.

Watch for the newsletter next Wednesday to see how one congregation in Texas responded to unique needs in their community.

Meet you at the pole…

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Fifty Ways #22 — Never Too Late

It’s never too late to recognize hard work. Especially if it involves celebrating the achievement of a milestone like graduation. We did that last Sunday at Western Hills Baptist Church for three high school grads. One of them was Shelby Ferguson. I remember when she was born. Now Shelby is headed to college at Centenary in Louisiana. Her parents Pam and Ray have raised her well. Provided opportunities and encouragement along the way. We’re proud of you Shelby!

You may remember Shelby from our newsletter in 2011. She was a part of a team that provided beginning home libraries to families in Eagle Pass. Do you remember Shelby’s reflections about that trip?

Shelby then and now--large print

The youth that she overheard talking about low literacy skills have not had the advantages so many take for granted. I wonder if either of those girls will be walking across a stage this spring? Let’s hope that seeds planted in Eagle Pass and elsewhere through Books for the Border and Beyond will impact future graduations in Texas and elsewhere.

Celebrate graduates. Pat them on the back. Pray for them. Ask them about their plans for the future. Plant seeds for future graduations.

We have been blessed to be a blessing…


Fifty Ways #11 — Would it be OK, if?

In a recent conversation with a dear soul who is planning a major back to school event for hundreds of children, that question came up. Would it be OK, if? If we modified the Books for the Border and Beyond design for bookcases? The answer was YES, of course. In this case, a crate from Home Depot will be used to get books to children in a way that provides some permanent storage.

The original design was developed to address the need to give books a secure place in homes that sometimes lack solid floors – in these United States. I’ve been in homes in Texas along the border with Mexico that have dirt floors. So a bookcase provides some security for treasured books – including school texts – in such locations.

colonia family with books

In the six years since the first bookcases were shared with families in Eagle Pass, more than three thousand families have received beginning home libraries. The bookcases have differed in construction methods; some have actually been bookshelves. One junior high principal recently suggested using discarded pickle buckets as homes for books. Imagine the possibilities…

 pickle bucket

The point is to fit the container to the need. On the list of 50 Ways Your Church Can Bless Your Community Through Literacy, #11 is Adapt the family reading fair concept in other settings where families lack books at home. That certainly includes adapting the container.

One suggestion: As much as possible include the families who will take the container home in the decoration (and/or manufacture) of the bookcase, bookshelf, or pickle bucket. This personalizes the home library and adds an element of fun to the family reading fair. See other suggestions on the Literacy Connexus website for hosting a family reading fair.

And I still love the bookcases…

Bookcase rowsig

Web log = Blog

The term “blog” is reminiscent of the intro to Star Trek when we’re reminded of stardates – fictional representations designed to disguise actual time of voyages “where no man has gone before.” I wish that I had begun a “blog” on May 1, 2004, when Literacy Connexus began. Blogging was in its infancy then, too. A diary would have worked. Perhaps in 2024 I’ll look back on today’s “blog” and be glad for the discipline of blogging at least every two weeks for the second ten years of Literacy Connexus.

What’s certain is that this initiative is focused at the intersection of volunteers and churches – an appropriate way to bid farewell to April as Volunteer Month. Literacy Connexus is all about volunteers helping people through church-based literacy ministries. Volunteers make it work and work well. So thank you, volunteers. Volunteers who have taught English as a second language, who have taught adults to read, who have tutored children and youth. This is the tradition, our literacy missions heritage. Thanks, too, volunteers who have built bookcases for children who live in homes without books. Thanks for those who have created teaching materials and written articles and given expression to the many ways that churches can bless their communities through literacy.

donating books is fun

What will the next ten years look like? More persons for whom English is not their native language are coming to Texas: refugees, immigrants, and internationals. We have a choice. We can embrace and encourage or turn inward and atrophy. Many adults are outside the workforce because they lack skills and credentials for employment. The GED is more difficult and more in demand (expected, really). How will churches open their doors to persons who are marginalized? We have a choice. And what of the cycle of poverty? Will we link arms with those who see the need for early intervention such as preschool for all? Will we explore creative new approaches in working with schools and other partners who believe in a meaningful future for all children? Again, we have a choice.

We also have a choice when it comes to answering that most crucial of questions: Why are you doing this? Why are you spending your time teaching me? Why did you come all the way out here to bring books and bookcases to these children? Why are you tutoring at that elementary school? Why, indeed? One could make the case for enlightened self-interest. Community service blesses the community. A rising tide lifts all boats and so forth. We can certainly point to the Golden Rule. Consider one of the principles of the helping relationship that was included in a little book published many years ago by Woman’s Missionary Union: The helper combines witness and ministry to communicate the love of Christ. Both/and not either/or. Both.

Stay tuned…

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Fifty Ways #27 — Begin an English as a Second Language Ministry

Imagine that you’ve just been transferred with your family to the United States. While you’ve heard English on television, the sounds are still jarring to you—certainly not familiar.  Your spouse speaks English well enough for the job setting; your young children will be in school, picking up the new language quickly.  Because your assignment is temporary, your motivation to learn a second language is limited.  Yes, it would be helpful in shopping and making your way around a new city . . . but worth the effort to study strange new sounds? 


Or picture this?  You are new to the U.S.  You and your family have lived in a refugee camp for the past eight years.  You’ve heard some English, but no classes were available, and survival was more important than trying to learn a language. Now you have access to ESL – but for just a few months.  And the pressure to learn so many new things is overwhelming.  Access to classes is the biggest hurdle.  And childcare is nonexistent.

Your family has lived in the US for years but it’s been easier to stick with your first language. Everything you wanted to do could be accomplished in your mother tongue. No one could have guessed the stress that would accompany family disruption.  Now you have to enter the work force. And you find yourself challenged by limited English proficiency.

class in session 

Good news!  Churches across Texas have been planning for you.  In some cases for more than forty years, instruction in ESL has been offered in local churches.  For internationals and refugees and immigrants. More than 2,000 persons volunteer in church-based ESL ministries or programs each week through the school year.  Most do not speak the language of their students.  Since they collectively teach persons from 85 countries, this is not surprising. More classes are needed though.  Many more.

 Consider beginning an English as a second language ministry.  We’d like to help you do just that. Contact us at  It’s one more way volunteers are making a difference in communities in Texas.  Join us!

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It’s National Volunteer Month!

I am working through the list of 50 Ways Your Church Can Bless Your Community Through Literacy.  However, for the month of April – National Volunteer Month – I’m taking a side bar.  That said, consider which of the 50 Ways would get very far without volunteers.  Not many, if any. The list is volunteer driven.  For example, I was going to blog today about #22:  Celebrate educational achievement by recognizing graduates. 

50 Ways slanted background with shadow

Suppose I were writing about that.  About the importance of paying attention to those who have achieved the milestone of completing high school, college, or graduate school.  What probably would have happened in some church, somewhere, would be that a lay person – a volunteer if you will – would have e-mailed a church staff member and said something like, “Why don’t we have special recognition for graduates this May?” or “I’d be happy to volunteer to help with the graduate recognition this year.”  Likely, that person would have been turned loose to blow up balloons, make punch, or buy special Bibles for those graduating. 

Imagine the good things that happened at the Red Oak Baptist Church in Longview when several churches joined to congratulate the graduates.  Picture busy volunteers making good memories for grads and their families.  Blessing young people and strengthening bonds in the community.

Local churches, families recognize graduates

Perhaps you’ve already made a note to check with your church leadership about what’s going to happen this May in your church.  It wouldn’t surprise me.  That’s just what you do!  So here at Literacy Connexus, we’re celebrating you this month.  Thanks for volunteering!  You are a blessing to your community.

PS  Good news:  The list of 50 Ways is now available in Spanish.  Thank you, Texas Baptists.   Just e-mail us and we’ll send it your way.

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Fifty Ways #18 — You Can Take That to the Bank

The Book Bank, that is.  There are now three Literacy Connexus Book Banks.  One in Montgomery County (First Baptist Church Conroe), one in Parker County (Center of Hope – combining resources of 58 churches and others), and one in Tarrant County (Western Hills Baptist Church).  There are 254 counties in Texas.  Be the church in your county to begin a Book Bank (251 openings by my count).


Think of a food bank.  Resources come in.  They are processed.  They are shared.  Everyone wins.  A book banks works in a similar way.  People donate books to the book bank.  Volunteers sort them.  Then the books are shared with those who lack books.  The three book banks mentioned above primarily receive gently used children’s books, screen and sort them, and send them out the door with churches that share them through family reading fairs or other activities.  By the thousands, these books have been shared in each noted county as well as in border communities in the Books for the Border and Beyond project.

However, not all the books are for children.  In the fall BNSF Railroad in Fort Worth, share the results of a book drive with Literacy Connexus and the Tarrant Literacy Coalition.  Recently volunteers sorted those books for three units of the Presbyterian Night Shelter (in Fort Worth):  the main facility, the section for veterans and the space for women and children.  Leslie Reisdorfer—member of Western Hills Baptist Church and employee of Meridian Bank—brought the books to the homeless shelters and shared a note from Harriet at Presbyterian Night Shelter.  She noted that walking through the main shelter people were already making use of the books and several residents expressed appreciation for new books to read.

Steps in beginning a book bank at your church.

1.  Meet with your church leadership:  staff, missions committee, librarian, etc.  Explain the concept.

2.  Find a room in your church facility that could serve as a book bank.  Shelves will be needed as well as a sorting area (at least one table).  Proximity to an exit on the first floor or near an elevator will be helpful.  Enlist volunteers to help prepare the room.

3.  Advertise the need for gently used children’s books (by far the most desired items).  See the Literacy Connexus website for a flyer to use  You don’t want cast off books.  We’ve made quite a few trips to the recycle bin or Goodwill.  Use of this flyer will reduce that problem.

4.  Enlist a volunteer team to sort books.  Again, the Literacy Connexus website has guidelines for screening and sorting books.  See

Ashleigh and Kelsey

5.  A donor in your church may want to give you money to buy new books.  The Literacy Connexus website has suggestions for core books (See above).  Jo Lee of San Antonio persuaded the manager of a Half Price Books store in her city to donate several boxes of books. Promote the project, the books will come…

6.  Next the fun starts.  Share what you have received with others.  You may want to draft guidelines for this as in one book per child in the proposed project or giveaway. 

For additional help with setting up your book bank, please contact us at (817 696-9898).  In addition, please share your progress with us.  We want to partner with you to provide books.

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