Try 1 month for 99¢
Literacy Network

This is a rendering of the new home of the Literacy Network of Dane County, formerly the Wingra Clinic on South Park Street. The facility is slated to open in August. 

Each time I hear a story about learners at Literacy Network, I’m reminded of why I am here. I’m reminded of why I started on this journey as a literacy volunteer more than 20 years ago. I have found inspiration and hope in the hundreds of adult learners I’ve met over the years.

My first learner, Juan, had three children and three jobs. He struggled with English, but managed to improve his skills, get more pay and help his children in school. Janie was dyslexic, had just escaped an abusive relationship and was trying to raise her two young daughters. Corinne, despite her low English language skills, eventually got herself on a career path in nursing.

Literacy is about access. Literacy is about dignity. It is about supporting one’s family. It is about achieving the dream of a better life.

More than 55,000 adults in Dane County struggle with literacy. That’s one in seven adults in our community. That’s enough to fill more than three Kohl centers.

The vast majority of adult learners live in poverty. Many have goals of gaining skills to better support their families. Many want better access to health care.

Most Literacy Network students are women with school-aged children. The No. 1 factor in a child’s success in school is the literacy level of his or her mother. The No. 1 predictor of individual health status is literacy level.

Literacy Network does so much with so little — in 2015, it served more than 1,000 adults with the help of more than 800 volunteers who gave 30,000 hours of time. Our service model is effective and efficient. But our services are limited because of too little space.

For more than 14 years, adult learners have been working toward their goals at the current offices of Literacy Network on Park Street. The space is too small, not a good learning environment and doesn’t afford learners dignity. 

Our current space is just 2,800 square feet. On weekday evenings, it is packed full of people. A couple of weeks ago, rainwater soaked the carpet. Water often settles in the light fixtures. Everyone shares an office with someone else. There is room for only 15 to sit comfortably in each classroom, but we often have 25 or more.

Many more people need personalized literacy support to succeed in their lives. And with expanded facilities and resources, we will help so many more people in need.

We are on the way to greatly increasing our capacity. Thanks to the support of many generous donors, including Lau and Bea Christiansen, the city of Madison, UW Health, the Pleasant Rowland Foundation and Diane Ballweg, we have purchased a building, the former Wingra Clinic in south Madison. Fortunately, we have already paid for the building, thanks to a great deal offered by our generous partners at Dean/St. Mary’s, who sold us the building for less than half its value.

The footage is more than four times our current space, and once our fundraising campaign is completed, we will double the number of adults served each year. 

Appreciate these insights? Get Cap Times opinion sent daily to your inbox

Our new space will be approximately 11,000 square feet. We’ll have a dedicated library. We’ll have a dedicated child care space. Our classrooms will be spacious. We plan to be in our new space in August. 

Our campaign has raised about $1 million so far. With this new push that kicks off April 28, we hope to raise another $2 million, for a total project cost of $3 million. The $2 million will pay for the building's renovation, technology installation and upgrades, and organizational capacity.  

I invite you to join us in this exciting journey. Learn more about our campaign at, and call me at 608-244-3911 to get involved.

Jeff Burkhart is executive director of the Literacy Network of Dane County.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.