Meeting the Community Where They Are: Wendy Falb, Ph.D.

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A driving purpose in Dr. Wendy Falb's life has been a commitment to creating more equitable educational opportunities and a passion for effective community transformation. She served on the GRPS board for 10 years, where she was instrumental in the development of the Museum School and part of the team that increased enrollment for the first time in 25 years and passed a $175 million millage.

Dr. Falb has led the Literacy Center of West Michigan as Executive Director for the past nine years. Since her start, the organization has grown to be the largest community-based adult literacy organization in Michigan and among the largest in the country, instructing over 1,100 individuals annually.

With March being National Reading Month—and one in eight adults in West Michigan struggling with low literacy—we spoke with Dr. Falb to learn more.

What makes you passionate about your work?
The remarkable assets of the people we serve. Some of our adult learners are congresswomen, engineers, or business owners in their own country who need language skills to work even the most basic jobs in the U.S. Some are mothers who speak an unwritten Indigenous language. Others are refugees who've never attended school until our classes. Their courage and accomplishments make them leaders for their families, community, and our region.

How does the Center work to increase literacy in West Michigan?
We work alongside immigrants, refugees, and native speakers of English to provide literacy support tailored to their individual adult needs and priorities. A key player in workforce development, the Center also partners with employers and other vocational programs across West Michigan and multiple sectors to provide skilled training alongside integrated literacy instruction. By removing literacy as a barrier, these programs help actualize the talents of everyone in our community while also creating a new talent pipeline.

The Literacy Center also creates paths to citizenship, supports citizens returning from incarceration, and collaborates with multiple school systems to provide a two-generational approach to children's literacy. We challenge ourselves to meet people where they are in life, designing our programs with, rather than just for, our adult learners. This approach sets us apart from many adult education providers and is the foundation for our success at addressing literacy in West Michigan.

What can we expect from the Center in 2024?
The Literacy Center was chosen as one of 10 non-profit organizations in Michigan to receive just over $1 million to move families out of poverty. We'll be leading a project that implements a workforce development strategy in partnership with Corewell Health, GRCC, and WMCAT to help employees upskill into midlevel health care careers. We're excited and know this work will be a game changer for our participants, our largest health care system, and the entire region.

How can the community get involved?
Close to 300 of our 1,100 learners work one-on-one with a volunteer literacy coach from the community, and we always have a large list of learners waiting for a coach. Please consider volunteering for this role—you'll love it and will likely learn just as much (if not more!) as the adult you'll be working alongside.

Don't underestimate what you might accomplish, how you might be a changemaker in your community and in your own life, if you take your personal passion and skills and direct them toward solving the unmet needs in our world.

Edited by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.

This article originally appeared in the Feb/Mar '24 issue of West Michigan Woman.

 Photo Courtesy of 616 Media. 


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