Literacy program celebrates 100th high school graduate

by Charles A. Baker, The Winter Haven Sun

LAKE WALES – The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy was founded while Bush was living in the White House in 1989.

In 2005, Family Literacy Academy of Lake Wales was founded with a Barbara Bush Foundation grant and later assisted with grants from the Polk State College Foundation, Mountain Lake Community Service, the United Way of Central Florida and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

Family Literacy Academy volunteers recently celebrated the academy’s 100th high school graduate — Lake Wales resident Maria Tovar.

Tovar was generous enough to share her experience.

“I started a family early and never thought I was going to be able to go back to school,” Tovar said.

As a teenage mother, Tovar and her partner, Juan, struggled financially. When, 10 years later, one of Tovar’s friends earned a high school diploma at Family Literacy Academy, it inspired her. Last August, Tovar enrolled and — twice per week — she got off work, had dinner with family and went to school for three hours.

“I was surprised that it didn’t take me that long,” Tovar said. “It’s a pretty good program.”

The organization’s work has not gone unnoticed in the Lake Wales community, either.

On May 9, Family Literacy Academy was named the 2019 Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce Community Service Organization of the Year. Howard Kay has been a board member and a math tutor at the academy for the past 13 years. Kay introduced the founders of the academy, Deming Cowles and Gail Crum, at the ceremony.

“I have never seen two people who are more passionate about their mission,” Kay said. “They do so many things to help their students.”

The Family Literacy Academy motto is, “Where families build their future.” Children and young parents learn academics and life skills together. Around 1,500 area residents have benefited from the academy’s programs, some of whom have utilized it to learn English. Social workers help families overcome various impediments to progress.

“It takes a community to work together to improve itself,” Dem Cowles said.

And, thanks to the collaboration and hard work behind the academy, residents such as Tovar can have a new self esteem.

“I did it,” she said. “I’m happy.”

Tovar has plans to enroll in nursing classes at Polk State College in the future.

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