Stafford: Group marks 20th year of funding literacy projects

For the past 19 years, the Springfield Literacy Sting has given adults the rare opportunity to publically humiliate themselves by misspelling words in a crowded room, while at the same time raising $150,000 for a crucial community cause.

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Much of this multi-tasking has been made possible by two tireless worker bees who will retire their wings Tuesday at the 20th been hosted by Altrusa International’s Springfield Chapter.

More people know Linda Howell because she dresses up like a bee at the bee and carries a long stick with a pin on the end. With it, she breaks the three black balloons floating over the chairs of teams that are eliminated from competition after a spelling error. It’s an experience that places a loud explanation point behind the word LOSER!

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Those involved in Springfield’s literacy circles also know Mary Ann Jung, a soft spoken retired teacher and principal, who not only has worked alongside Howell in raising funds and recruiting teams for the bee, but who coordinates the children’s literacy program at the Warder Literacy Center. That means she’s a steady person of substance.

In a world that sometimes takes note of how much less women are paid on the job than men, Howell and Jung are among a cadre of women whose valuable service to their community always goes unpaid and is, for the most part, grossly underappreciated.

I fondly call these women “the usual suspects,” because they seem unable to stop constantly scheming and plotting over ways to improve our community.

The notion of a Literacy Sting – now a much celebrated event in the larger Altrusa International Community – was created 20 years ago when our two worker bees began plotting with some of the other “usual suspects” of Clark County: Marge Greenwood, Kim Williamson, Norma Knowlton and the late Elizabeth Woodhouse, all Altrusans.

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Frustrated by the small amounts candy sales and other fundraisers garnered, “We wanted to have a big project so we could get enough money to really do something,” Jung said.

Working with Marsha Randall, who then headed literacy efforts in Springfield, and Jeff Smith, a grant writer, they met to brainstorm in a meeting attended by a Wittenberg University intern, whose name has been forgotten, but who mentioned the success of a spelling bee in her community.

Slowly and steadily the event was built and grew, a lunchtime format was adopted, and teams from banks, businesses, educational institutions, the fire and sheriff’s departments and even a newspaper signed up for a couple of hours away from work and a commitment to help fund literacy.

Howell said the constant goal has been “to raise the bar for literacy,” then added: “Twenty-three percent of the population of Clark County can’t read a lick, and that’s sad.”

In addition to helping raise the money, the two worker bees have done their best to get books bought with the proceeds into the hands of children, distributing 6,000 to 7,500 books a year, in part by setting up at 10 events annually.

Altrusan Sandy Justice, who has worked with Howell and Jung for the past 11 years, says those outings are the ones that provide the inspiration for all the work.

Justice remembers seeing a shy little girl being attracted by the three-sided fishing well Howell hauls around for “Hook a Book,” a scheme for getting children interested in reading by having them fish for books.

Howell plays Nemo, the fish who calls them over, while Jung stands behind the display, quizzes children about their interests and hooks them a book that fits their interests.

Justice still remembers the shy girl walking around clutching the book to her chest like the prized possession that it was.

Justice found the same sort of inspiration in watching the respectfulness and seriousness with which three boys, perhaps 5, 7 and 9 looked over books in a free lending library behind Whitacre’s Pharmacy on Lagonda Avenue talked with their mother about which single book they’d take home with them.

“You know what I’m happiest about?” said Jung: “I’ve seen a rise in the interest older kids have in books.”

Howell, who last week had surgery to clean out a knee, is having more trouble hauling around the Hook a Book platform these days.

Like Howell, Jung is in her late 70s and said other changes have made the project more challenging. With the closing of local companies and their purchase by larger corporations, it’s a more difficult to find sponsors and participants than in the past.

“It may be the time to give it over to other people who can take it to the next level,” she said.

Justice said she and other Altrusans are ready to do so.

“We definitely intend to keep on with it,” she said, though likely with some alterations.

“A lot of companies have difficulty having people out for two-and-a-half or three hours in the middle of the day,” she said. “We’ve talked about the possibility of doing an evening thing.”

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Changes already have been made to streamline the event, but do it in a way that keeps it light and fun without anxiety building among people who feel as though they have to return to their desks.

The changes will allow Altrusa to continue to stock a library at the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center; provide books to Springfield’s Peace Camp and On the Rise programs; make Spanish language books available for tutoring in the Tecumseh Local Schools; and give children shaken by house fires or other family traumas a book and a stuffed animal to help them in a time of uncertainty.

Just how it all will shake out isn’t yet clear. But for Howell and Jung, knowing the event will continue will take some of the sting out of turning in their wings, and area adults can rest assured that they will continue to have an annual opportunity to humiliate themselves for a good cause.

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