Helping the World to Read

Ruth (Johnson) Colvin was born into a family of five children in Chicago. Her father was a Swedish American and the head of a successful construction company. She received a two-year degree and studied at Northwestern, where she met her husband. Her husband had a successful business located in Syracuse, NY. Ruth earned a Bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University at the age of 43.

When the 1960 census results were published, Ruth was appalled to learn that 11,000 people in Syracuse had the lowest level of literacy skills. Ruth loved to read and decided to see what she could do to elevate the literacy level of her fellow citizens.

She worked with reading specialists to develop training materials for voluntary literacy tutors. The materials were designed for literacy development for adults with low reading levels as well as for those learning English as a new language.

Ruth created a non-profit group to be the organization’s home for literacy training. The group expanded its local mission to a national one with the creation of the Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA). LVA grew to an organization of over 100,000 volunteers with programs in nearly every state.

Ruth then took her literacy advocacy to the world when she merged LVA with Laubach Literacy International. The new group is called ProLiteracy Worldwide. Frank Laubach was a missionary who saw literacy as an essential step in removing poverty. His approach was one-on-one literacy development where every person who learned to read taught another person. He called this program Each One Teach One.

Ruth was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the age of 90. At the age of 102, she was awarded an honorary doctorate, making her the oldest person to receive such an honor. At the age of 104, she received her first COVID vaccine.

Hidden heroes see a need and work to address it. Often they have remarkable organization skills, and when combined with their passion for progress, can achieve what others cannot. Ruth Colvin is an example of what one person can do to address a problem that has existed for centuries.

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            “If you believe in your idea, you go from there. If you do it with love, it will work out.”– Ruth Colvin

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