September 2015 RichmondMom with a Mission: Karen LaForge

One is never too old to learn, but for adult learners, the challenge is often in finding the right teacher. For adults battling illiteracy in our community, the right teachers are right around the corner at The Read Center.

Meet this month’s RichmondMom with a Mission, Karen LaForge.

RichmondMom Cheryl
What is your title and how would you describe what is you do with the The Read Center?

The Read Center Karen
I am the Executive Director for The READ Center. My main responsibilities for READ are fundraising and administration, however, I also work with volunteers and programs. READ has a small staff, so I do whatever needs to be done to make sure we are on track and successful.

What was the catalyst that made you decide YOU personally needed to take action?

With my sons pretty much on their own, it was time for me to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I had worked for a statewide educational non-profit for almost 18 years and was ready for a change. I knew I wanted to work at an organization where I could make a difference in Richmond, so I began to look around.

When the opportunity with The READ Center came up, I applied because I love to read. I did not know a lot about the adult illiteracy problem in Richmond, or the impact it has on people and their families. I could not imagine what an illiterate life would be like. I knew that I would not have the life I have today if I could not read.

When I thought about the impact READ has on the students it serves, their families and the community, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I thought I could help READ be successful so I interviewed, and [was] here six months later.

Please tell us a bit about how you got started…

Like a lot of people in the non-profit world, I came into the field from a for-profit company and fell in love with the work.

I was working in sales and was traveling quite a bit. I wanted to spend more time with my two young sons, so I took a job with Virginia United Methodist Homes in fundraising. My sales skills easily translated to development work. I’ve worked for non-profits ever since—more than 20 years.

What are the goals of READ?

The READ Center helps adults with low-level literacy develop basic reading and communication skills through classroom instruction and one-to-one tutoring so they can better fulfill their goals and roles as citizens, workers, and family members.

The READ Center is small, but there is a great need for our services. More than 65,000 adults in metro Richmond and Petersburg lack basic prose skills which means they struggle each and every day with daily life. Over 85,000 adults in the area lack a high school diploma or GED.

Recognizing the need to serve more adults, READ is planning to increase student enrollment this year. We are also working on a site assessment so we can strategically plan the next READ class sites.

The most exciting thing we have planned this year is summer classes. The READ Center will end classes in June 2016 to match the local school divisions. However, the learning will not stop. We are working on a schedule of summer classes that will include math and computer literacy for low literacy adult learners. Other classes that are being considered are health and financial literacy. The class slate and sites are not set yet so please check our website in January for more details.

We are also working on infrastructure upgrades like a new office and new program database. These are not sexy items, but will make us more effective and more efficient in the long run.

What do you feel has been accomplished so far?

When I started with The READ Center in April, we were about a month away from our signature fundraiser, The Spelling Bee. I began to panic as special events are usually planned months in advance. However, it turned out really well. We set a record for number of teams participating in the Bee and raised more than $20,000 for READ.


September 8 was International Literacy Day. The READ Center celebrated with READ Center Night at the Diamond; an Op-Ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch by best-selling author and former READ Board member Mary Burton on adult illiteracy; and a Proclamation from the Mayor of Richmond, the Honorable Dwight Jones, recognizing The READ Center for its literacy efforts. This was the first time READ has celebrated Literacy Day. READ is planning more activities with our literacy partners next year.

I was happily surprised by our supporters who contributed almost $9,000 to The READ Center during The Amazing Raise. We did not double donations from the previous year, but we came pretty close and that was AMAZING!

About 70 people have registered for fall volunteer tutor training which is the largest group READ has ever had for tutor training. On top of that, we are presenting our first full day training program for tutors and a fast track for educators. The record number of tutors is great and we will put them to work as soon as possible. You’ll have to check back with READ to see how the new training format works out for volunteers.

What makes you proudest personally about your affiliation with the group?

It’s the people I work with every day.

We have a great group of teachers who are passionate about what they do and always go the extra mile for our students.

Volunteer tutors give their time, expertise, and experience to help others in the community. They are a wonderful group of people. Also our volunteer Board is always supportive and willing to pitch in where needed.

READ Center students are why we are all here. They are a brave group of people who admit they need help. They are so appreciative of READ and the opportunity it gives them – a second chance.

Student Recogntion Events 0482 (2)
They thank me for doing what I do which touches me and makes me so very proud of being a part of The READ Center. It’s very cool and a huge motivator.

What’s next on-deck?

READ is planning a donor celebration in October that will bring together our supporters, tutors and students. Our supporters can’t often go to our classrooms to see what we do. This is an opportunity for supporters to meet students and tutors and learn more about how their donations are being used and what is being accomplished.

The READ Center will be moving our office in January 2016 to a space that can accommodate a classroom and computer lab for students. We have been looking in the Willow Lawn area for a new location. The area has some great space that is centrally located and on the bus line which is important for our students.

How can others get involved?

Volunteer! READ Center always needs great tutors to work with students. Our next training session is spring 2016. You can learn more about tutoring on our website. READ tutors say they get as much or more out of the experience of working with adult learners as the adult learners get from them.

We also need professional services from time to time, like setting a newsletter, writing articles, or help with special events. If you have a talent you want to share, let us know. You can register on the website and put your talent in the comment section on the registration.

Support The READ Center! Your donation goes a long way at The READ Center. A donation of $50 provides reading testing booklets for 15 students. A gift of $25 can purchase a LitStart manual for a tutor. A gift of $1,800 provides services to a student for the school year.

No matter the size of the gift, The READ Center will put it to good work helping adults reach their literacy goals.

Learn more about adult literacy and help us get the word out in the community. You can request to be added to our mailing list at so you can keep up with what’s going at READ. If you are a member of an organization or business that can support READ with donations or volunteers, we would love to work with you.

How does your family feel about what you are doing?

“My sister has devoted most of her career to working with not-for-profits. She has encouraged her sons to participate in her endeavors (volunteering with Special Olympics for example). She has also encouraged and motivated me to give of my time with not-for-profits in my area. Her current position with The Read Center is close to Karen’s heart. As an avid reader and someone who understands the importance of the written word, the mission of the center aligns with beliefs that have been with Karen since childhood.  I am proud of the work she has done, is doing and will continue to do. I am also proud of her for instilling these values on my nephews.”
Sister and volunteer at Habitat for Humanity and The Bebe Foundation in Delaware.

“I think that what [Karen is] doing is a great thing.  In my industry I have worked with many associates who struggled with the basic skills of reading and writing.  Some struggled due to lack of education and some struggled due to language barriers. Each of them has had different reasons for their struggles. Having places like The Read Center to help associates  improve their situation in life, and in work, is great.”
Brother-in-law, works for Perdue.

“I have always been impressed by my mother’s work ethic and have sought to emulate that every day of my life. But more than that, her commitment to non-profit work and charitable endeavors has always been a cornerstone of who she is as a person, and because of her efforts I am proud to call her my mother. Her current position with the The Read Center is not new, it is not a departure from the path she has followed for so many years—both professionally and personally—it is rather a new opportunity to help others and improve our community. I cannot be more emphatic in my support of my mother and the work she is doing for The Read Center.”
– Thomas Davis
Eldest son and Systems Engineer for Timmons.

Is there a quote that inspires you?

There have been many through the years that have inspired me. The one that is now on the white board at The READ Center is, “Stop Talking. Go. Do.” I think it says it all, so I’ll stop talking.

Please feel free to share additional info you’d like to share with the RichmondMom readership!

I couldn’t do an interview on a Mom website and not brag about my children. I am so very proud of my two sons, Thomas and Scott.

Thomas graduated from JMU (Go Dukes!) in three years and is a systems engineer with Timmons. Thomas is so very smart and continually challenges me to stay on top of international, national, and local events. He comes by about once a week for dinner and leftovers.

Scott was recruited to play football at Bowling Green State University. After a career ending injury, he took on an internship with Aflac and has had great success with the company. He is also very smart and driven. He will graduate from BGSU in May.

They are my passion and inspire me to continue learning and growing.

Karen, your passion inspires us. Thank you for all you are doing for the Richmond community, and for being a RichmondMom with a Mission!