Patricia Butts had a vision for this year.
She couldn’t have seen all this coming, though. But for her first full year as executive director of the Lee County Literacy Coalition, Butts already had in mind a new drive to leverage technology in 2020, using virtual meetings to make lessons more accessible for tutors and learners.
Suddenly, her vision has surged into fruition.
And with her forward thinking, the coalition is a bit more prepared for the coronavirus pandemic than it might have been.
The Lee County Literacy Coalition has seen tutor and learner pairings adapt by using technology to communicate, and it has retooled its in-person workshops into online webinars that have gone off smoother than the staff even expected, all as calls for social distancing have made face-to-face teaching impossible.
The group is using video chat, conference calling, and even new ways to teach using simple phone calls now — all as part of an initiative that Butts was already implementing this spring, but which seemingly overnight became more useful than anyone would’ve figured.
That includes Butts, who took over as executive director of the organization last spring after serving on the group’s board in 2017 and 2018.
“We were going to roll this out in March and April, but we have no choice now,” Butts said on Friday. “So we were a little bit ahead of the game.”
There have been some hiccups and glitches along the way, Butts said, as everyone adjusts to life more isolated, but a day before she spoke, on Thursday, the group hosted its no-cost health literacy webinar that she was excited to see come together.
On top of pairing tutors with learners, the coalition organizes regular workshops on health literacy, financial literacy and computer literacy, all now being offered online as the group operates virtually.
“That was all Patricia,” said program coordinator Jane Gray Eiland, on that call to leverage technology more this year.
“There’s so many barriers for tutors and learners to meet, like transportation, or if you have children, to get child care — Some people don’t have a bunch of time to drive across town and it’d be easier if they could just meet via Zoom,” Eiland explained. “So that’s just been our 2020 vision, which is just so nice that we were already thinking of that and going toward that and now this has happened. So it’s like we were kind of prepared, a little bit. I mean, obviously not for everything. No one expected the virus to get this bad.
“But it’s been really cool.”
Butts is from Virginia and before moving to Alabama she worked with the U.S. Navy as a deployment support analyst working to offer training on things like communication, stress management and combating PTSD.
“Immediately, I thought of all the webinars we did, all the ways that we could touch people using technology. Of course with the resources of the United States Navy, you can do a lot,” Butts laughed. “But the fundamentals, they are the same.”
And in Lee County, she says there are some learners who may work odd hours or there are some tutors who may be homebound, and in general virtual learning just makes lessons that much more available to those who need it.
“I figure if I can talk to people in Italy and Japan when I was in Washington, D.C., online … then why couldn’t we do that here and teach people?
Butts first moved to Alabama in 2012 to work with the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site under the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In 2015, she was part of the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to- Montgomery civil rights march, helping to organize the event that brought President Barack Obama to the area.
“That really shifted me,” she said.
“That kind of ignited something, and I wanted to be a part of things that happen right in here in Alabama because I truly believe that Alabama is the place that change happens.”
Butts then served as the executive director of the Alabama Coalition of Domestic Violence starting later in 2015 before ultimately jumping on the Lee County Literacy Coalition’s board in 2017.
While many learners in the area come from disadvantaged situations, Butts has found that by the miracle of modern technology, many have a smartphone if not a laptop, or at least have the ability to borrow one.
What the coalition needed was a push in that direction. Butts made that push.
“She doesn’t give up on ideas and that makes them happen,” Eiland said.
“Patricia is amazing,” she also said. “She loves to teach. She teaches me so much stuff because I’m a little new to the game. She’s very patient and is really more than a boss. She’s been just a wonderful mentor.
“She has ideas and she sticks with them.”
Their first webinar in lieu of a workshop was themed ‘March Mindfulness,’ and they say it went off without a hitch.
“It was awesome and we had people jump on and they could hear everything and see everything,” Eiland said.
“We were able to do activities, we were able to watch videos and do a PowerPoint — like we would be in a classroom. So I was very excited about that. It worked out very well.”
Those interested in the group or how it is now operating virtually can visit the site at LeeCountyLiteracyCoalition.org.
The group trains tutors every other month with the next opportunity coming in May.
As the virus affects every corner of the country, it’s difficult for anyone to predict what’s next. But the Lee County Literacy Coalition is acting fast and adapting, thanks to that 2020 vision.
“It’s beyond reading for us,” Butts said. “It’s financial literacy, which is important, and health literacy, too, which is very important, especially now so people can understand it.
“We’ve gotten a few people online and they’re doing really well and they’re scheduled, and we’re excited,” she added.