Arkansas native makes literacy priority

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published February 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 15, 2013 at 10:13 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Nicole Stroud is director of the Ozark Foothills Literacy Project. The project uses volunteer tutors to teach reading and English language skills to residents of Fulton, Independence and Sharp counties.

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When Nicole Stroud was young, her family piled into their car for a vacation. She had already stocked up with supplies — a stack of library books nearly as tall as she was.

Before the family was halfway to Florida, Stroud decided she’d have to turn back. The voracious reader was all out of books.

“I was such a nerd,” Stroud said.

Her lifetime love of reading and English paid off in 2010, when Stroud landed the role of executive director with the Ozark Foothills Literacy Project. The Batesville-based organization helps train volunteers to assist adults in Independence, Sharp and Fulton counties with basic reading comprehension and English-as-a-second-language skills. A recently acquired grant will allow the project to expand into Izard County, adding even more to Stroud’s daily to-do list. But the work is worth it.

“The best part is the individual successes,” Stroud said. “We had a student recently who couldn’t pass [the English comprehension test] to take classes at the University of Arkansas Community College-Batesville. The student took six months of tutoring with us and passed the test. Now that person is being trained with us as a tutor.”

Born and raised in Forrest City, Stroud credits her mother with always putting a big emphasis on education for her and her siblings.

“We learned to read very early,” Stroud said. “I remember my mom working with the Junior Auxiliary and bringing people into our home that were having trouble with reading skills, teaching them with phonics cards in our living room.”

Soon Stroud was taking in childhood favorites such as Anne of Green Gables and The Chronicles of Narnia.

“Anything I could get my hands on,” Stroud said.

As an English major at Hendrix University, Stroud began to think that she might want to be a lawyer, but a few years working in law offices made her change her mind.

“I have a fear of public speaking, and attorneys have to do that a lot,” Stroud said. “The corporate world and the nonprofit world are also really different, and I really loved being able to work with people and see me making a difference in their lives.”

After graduating from Hendrix in 1999, she lived and worked in Little Rock for a few years before moving to Florida with her now-husband, Ben, in 2005. The couple had just finished unpacking all their boxes when a hurricane came through.

“We’d unpacked all the electronics into the one room that wasn’t surrounded by concrete,” Stroud said. “My sister [who lived nearby] called and said, ‘Pack it all back up.’”

A few weeks later another hurricane hit — the joys of Florida living.

“My nieces at the time were 5 and 7, and we were there for five years, so it was a really fun time to be near them,” Stroud said.

Stroud and her husband, who had grown up in Batesville, hadn’t planned on moving back to Arkansas but began looking for houses in the area on a trip back to visit family. They were sold.

While in Florida, Stroud had begun classes through Florida State University for a degree in library science. She completed her degree shortly after moving back to Arkansas.

“I decided I wanted to be a librarian the first time I walked into one of the public libraries in Florida,” Stroud said. “It’s all about that public service.”

When the organizers of the Ozark Foothills Literacy Project began to advertise for an executive director, Stroud was immediately interested.

“Combining literacy and education is ideal for me,” Stroud said.

Stroud now helps organize the project’s nearly 40 volunteers and three AmeriCorps staff members. Each volunteer has to attend training and take an online course before being matched with a student.

“We have a lot of retired teachers who volunteer, as well as college students and professors,” Stroud said.

Around 25 percent of the students receiving tutoring with the project are there for help with basic reading skills, while 75 percent come for ESL help.

For Stroud, one of the most difficult parts of the job is not always being able to provide the additional support her students may need.

“All we provide are literacy services, and a lot of our students need more than that,” Stroud said. “They need help talking to a doctor because of the language barrier or are afraid to go to a food pantry because they can’t communicate.”

In recent years, Stroud has been able to refer many of her students to the United Way so they can get the additional help they need.

When she’s not working with the literacy project (which is technically a part-time position), Stroud works as a library consultant with programs such as the Arkansas State Library, helping the libraries organize programs and set goals.

And then there’s Stroud’s other role with the project.

“I’m also a tutor, which isn’t actually part of my job description,” Stroud said. “I have two students who I meet with just like any other volunteer.”

Ask her what keeps her going, and Stroud always mentions the success stories of which she gets to be a part.

“When people walk in our door, they’re motivated to learn,” Stroud said.

When one student finally received his “Level One” certificate, he made sure Stroud knew it would be displayed with pride in his new apartment.

“He would always go straight to his lesson and didn’t talk much,” Stroud said. “But when he got that certificate, he walked into my office smiling. He said he’d never gotten anything like that before.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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