Florida Keys News
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
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Literacy Volunteers thriving in new location
Once homeless, organization takes root at Lions Club

It's been a long time coming, but the Key West chapter of the Literacy Volunteers of America finally has a new home.

The nomadic nonprofit has been shuffled around school district properties four times in the past five years, but is now entrenched in the newly renovated Lions Club building on North Roosevelt Boulevard.

At the beginning of May, LVA Executive Director Mary Casanova and Board President Peary Fowler signed a two-year lease, with an option for two more years, with the Lions Club, which controls the building.

Since then, the pair have pulled out all the stops recruiting volunteers to help make its new space in the aging building habitable.

"They were basically junk rooms before we got to work," said Fowler, a county judge, on Tuesday. "Fortunately, we were able to draw on the kindness and support of the community, which has really stepped up and pitched in. We're so very happy to finally have a long-term home."

The LVA has for three decades tutored thousands of English students at various locations throughout the Keys. In recent years, however, as the county's real estate prices have soared, cheap office space has been in short supply -- especially for cash-strapped nonprofits.

Still, the organization manages to tutor some 300 students per year, most of them immigrants looking to better their economic situation and that of their families.

Most recently, the LVA had been renting a small office in the May Sands Complex on United Street. However, a fellow tenant, the Montessori Charter School, was expanding its program and the school district was legally obliged to meet its needs before renting to nondistrict-related entities such as the LVA.

Once again, the group struggled to find a home.

In May, after negotiations with the Lions Club board, a deal was reached. The LVA will pay $300 per month for two rooms in the rear of the Lions' building with $100 of that coming out of Fowler's own pocket. Both Fowler and Casanova have joined the Lions Club as a gesture of good faith.

"We're poor," said Casanova, who has been with the organization since 1992. The longtime employee took an 80 percent pay cut last year, forcing her to run the program from a cheaper home in Stuart.

Now that the Key West issue has been solved, Casanova and Fowler can turn their attention to the middle and upper Keys, where the LVA's space situation continues to be dire.

"We're library- and home-based in Marathon and Key Largo," Casanova said. "In Marathon, we had been operating out of the Salvation Army, but they've closed, so now we have the key to the Marathon library, but it's a little small too. We also operate out of the home of Maria Triana, who was a former client and now an LVA success story. She operates her own business, but hasn't forgotten about us. She still makes time and space for us in her home. In Key Largo, we work out of the home of Sharon Plezia, another committed LVA supporter."

On June 24, the LVA hosted a thank-you party for the numerous volunteers at the Lions Club, which is finally in a condition to begin holding private parties and the like again after being in a deteriorating state for years.

"We're going to be here for awhile," Fowler said. "Now that we have a place to hang our hat, we want to get down to business. The place has been dormant for so long. It's like we've planted a little seed and it's beginning to sprout. It's very exciting."

On Oct. 15 the nonprofit will hold its biggest fundraiser of the year, the LVA Celebrity Chef Cook-off at Benihana Restaurant on South Roosevelt Boulevard.

The group is always looking for volunteers.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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