History / Herstory
The Over-the-Rhine Learning Center began as an outreach ministry of First Lutheran Church, 1208 Race Street, in the impoverished inner city Cincinnati neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine (OTR). First Lutheran Church was formed in 1842 as the first English-speaking church in what was then a neighborhood of German immigrants. In the 1970’s and beyond, it had become a bit of a haven for individuals experiencing homelessness and/or mental illness. Homeless shelters, housing programs, meal programs, and other accessible, complementary outreach services addressed issues relating to poverty.
In the early 2000’s at First Lutheran, 200-300 guests from the community enjoyed a free weekly lunch there. The (then) pastor, Pastor Fred Cook, and I noticed that guests often sought him out for confidential help in reading important correspondence that was too challenging for them like court, child support, or eviction documents. I know from my previous volunteer work with
literacy in Clermont County that statistically about 50% of the unemployed are functionally illiterate, which would point to the likelihood that many of our lunch guests were there to eat because they were either high school dropouts or illiterate and, therefore, unemployed and unable to meet their daily needs consistently.
As the saying goes, it’s probably not best to just “give people fish” (a free lunch), but it’s better to offer the opportunity to “teach people to fish,” that is, to teach people to read for themselves so they can reach their life goals: employment, self-sufficiency, independence from social service agencies, and so many more personal goals.
So in 2003, with the stalwart support of Pastor Cook, I began a program to teach non- and low-level readers increased literacy skills (our Basic Reading Program) in a small church-owned building next door to the church at 1212 Race Street. It was originally called The Reading Center and Computer Lab. The Computer Lab began in collaboration with The Lord’s Gym, a men’s ministry on the corner of our block. Our program started as just a one-day-a-week program, in conjunction with the church’s free lunch program, but after about a year, the church voted to hire me as the program Director so I could be there full-time to accommodate the needs of our growing program.
Once the door of the 1212 building was opened to students and tutors, somewhat surprisingly, we found that the community in general perceived the door was also open to them, and we welcomed all. So many of our walk-ins were in a state of transience. We offered telephone and fax use, a message board, a repository for safe storage for important papers like birth certificates, computer access in our Computer Lab, job search and resume development, social service referrals, and much more—basically, whatever we could do with what we had. There are SO many stories to tell about this rich time in our “open door” history….
STUDENTS AND TUTORS
But our true mission was and is literacy. Today, as in our early years, our students come to us through occasional recruiting efforts, but mostly through personal referrals and our networking with area agencies. Many of our students have learning disabilities, and some are challenged by developmental disabilities. Yet every few months another reading student achieves a grade level increase; every year or so, another student graduates from our Basic Reading Program, having developed basic reading skills which have taken years to reach; and some students continue to study with us to further enhance their reading skills after that. We generally keep a student base of around 18, within which at least a dozen are active at any given time. We have a pool of over 20 diverse volunteers, in which a dozen or so are active at any given time.
PROGRAM EXPANSION IN 2007
In 2007, we received an extremely generous grant award from the Jacob G. Schmidlapp Trusts, Fifth Third Bank, Trustee.Through that grant, we were able to employ a much needed Desk Manager for the 1212 building. Around that time, we parted ways with The Lord’s Gym, but we continued to be responsible for the community’s access to the Computer Lab.
That grant allowed us also to begin to offer GED test preparation in addition to our lower level literacy training--we had received so many requests for that over the years. The GED Test Preparation Program was housed in the church basement initially. We began our program with small group instruction and supervised study. Later, as with our lower level programming, we switched to providing all one-to-one tutoring by appointment for the most personalized support. GED students are expected to attend class two times per week, once for tutoring in the language-based subjects and once for tutoring with our fabulous math tutors. We usually keep a student base of about 10 active GED students at any given time. We average 3 students obtaining their GEDs each year.
Around 2010, due to budget constraints with the economic crash and insufficient options for volunteer coverage, we were unable to maintain the Desk Manager position after our Desk Manager resigned. We had to make the adjustment to only accommodating student and tutor appointments, and could no longer have the door open to the public. We also scaled back the days we were open to just Mondays through Thursdays. But we remained tightly focused on our primary goals—increasing literacy levels and facilitating GED obtainment. In fact, in response to the number of GED applicants with only junior high reading levels, we added another program component: the Bridge to GED Program.
Around this time, I explored other potential locations for the lower 2 levels of our program as the OTR neighborhood continued to undergo “gentrification” efforts led by 3CDC. Poor building and parking accessibility due to major construction throughout the neighborhood, along with the daily grind of facing crime around our building and block had taken its toll. We were generously offered free office and tutoring space at Philippus United Church of Christ, also in Over-the-Rhine. I moved the lower two levels of our programming there in July of 2012. We then moved the GED program component over from First Lutheran’s basement into the 1212 building. They would now have safer, dedicated space for themselves, and easier access to the Computer Lab there. At that time I also developed a new Advisory Board.
But then in 2012, after 20+ years of outstanding inner city ministry, Pastor Fred Cook accepted a new call at another church. Shortly thereafter, First Lutheran Church gave notice that they would stop sponsoring the literacy ministry as of January 2014. They committed to paying for expenses relating to us obtaining our own 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
The good people of Philippus invited us to also house the GED Test Preparation Program component in their church, rent-free as well. So we moved the GED program there in December of 2013 and stayed until the end of 2015.
We did receive our 501(c)(3) status and operate as an independent non-profit organization.
We were blessed to offer our 2 levels of literacy programming in partnership with Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, when we were located on the 4th floor of "buddy's place," which was on 13th and Vine Streets.
1) Basic Reading Program, for new or low-level readers, and
2) Bridge to GED Program, for those with junior high school reading levels who need to better prepare for studying GED curriculum elsewhere.
Could this be our last move?!! Except for the possibility of adding satellite sites, let's hope so! Geesh, we've been around. But all for good reason. We continue to offer our 2 levels of programming as above, and we have renewed our emphasis on computer literacy, so we needed this street level access. We are starting a Community Computer Lab on Thursdays! The other reason we bother to endure the moves, is because:
the need to combat illiteracy and its attendant deprivations continues to be great.
Please do not be fooled by gentrification.
Financial donations for operating support will allow the learning to continue! Please donate today!