First Person: Expanding the horizons of women in Jacksonville

A unique partnership to remove barriers and help women improve reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension skills.

Written by: Chantel Scherer, Teresa Mills & Marcus Haile

The Literacy Alliance of Northeast Florida and the Women’s Center of Jacksonville (WCJ) announced last September, during National Adult Education & Family Literacy Week, a unique partnership combining resources and expertise to reach and better support more women in Northeast Florida.

One in five local adults has an elementary reading level or below, and research shows that women with lower literacy skills find it more difficult to overcome mental health issues due to not being able to effectively access resources that could help them manage their mental health. Given the last couple of years, and the fact that Covid-19 disproportionately affected women, this partnership is well-timed.

The WCJ has run a comprehensive literacy program known as Expanded Horizons since 2003. The Women’s Giving Alliance originally funded this program and it continues to receive support from the Jim Moran Foundation. The program has included basic literacy classes, GED preparation, one-to-one tutoring, and financial and health literacy skill-building.

The idea for this partnership came about in 2020, while much of the world was on lock-down in the midst of Covid-19.  As the WCJ worked to navigate services for clients in a remote environment, and they began looking externally for expertise in the area of literacy. 

The WCJ recognized that a trauma-focused approach to services is its strongest area of expertise but through analysis, concluded that the Literacy Alliance provides robust and quality literacy instruction that had similar goals as Expanded Horizons.  Over half of the Literacy Alliance’s adult learners were women, and the organization was in search of a gender-specific approach to programming, as well as wraparound services to increase student persistence.   Starting this past January, the Literacy Alliance and the WCJ began formally working together to place a greater focus on literacy skills for women, while also working to remove the emotional barriers that have impeded their ability to complete their education or gain the skills needed to tackle life challenges.

Partnerships are an essential mainstay for the non-profit community as combining resources to maximize impact can be beneficial; however, inevitably, there can also be challenges in bringing two or more organizations together. Central to the success of this partnership was goal alignment between the partners, buy-in from program participants and other important stakeholders, and effective communication so that the women the agencies served knew exactly where they could go for support and how best to access it.  

Winning hearts and minds of executive leadership across both agencies, as well as with donors and funders, was also key. Both partners conducted a thorough due diligence review of costs, service delivery mechanisms, constituent impact, etc. They openly discussed the pros and cons and were then able to demonstrate the benefits of the partnership to all concerned.

The two organizations believe it’s a win-win.  “We feel that this partnership enhances our mission to improve the lives of women,” says executive director of the WCJ, Teresa Miles. “Reaching more women through this unique partnership is really exciting and I have complete confidence in the Literacy Alliance to deliver the literacy aspect of Expanded Horizons. It is a core belief of the WCJ that education is a necessary pillar in empowering women.”

Chief executive officer of the Literacy Alliance, Marcus Haile adds, “We know that education is an essential part of improving the lives of women and improved literacy skills dramatically enhance an individual’s physical, mental and emotional health. At a very basic level, literacy increases opportunities to improve income, advocate for themselves, create lifelong and life-wide successes, and break the cycle of poverty for women.”

Marcus Haile continues, “We see way too many times that women enrolled in our programs are suffering, and having the Expanded Horizons partnership in place means we can confidently serve clients in both domains of their lives. By combining resources and programmatic strengths, Expanded Horizons will reach more women in need of emotional support to remove barriers to educational attainment.”

Please feel free to reach out to Teresa and Marcus if you are interested in learning more this unique partnership to improve both literacy and mental health across Jacksonville.

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