The Pharr Literacy Project began when two retired educators from Ohio visited the Rio Grande Valley and saw the need for alternative learning. They noticed there were people wanting to learn but did not have the means to pursue it.

The Literacy Project was created to enhance the quality of life, build individual potential, bring cultures together, improve the economic health of the community and bring about systemic change through education, this according to their Web site. The project is funded through grants, local drives, donations and supported through the United Methodist Church.

The Pharr Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization that offers classes in ESL, GED preparation, basic work force skills and other classes that include music study, painting, knitting and pottery has a new home. It is a newly remodeled building that is 15,000 square feet and has over 50 rooms; half of them will be used as classrooms.

Kelly Michal, CEO of the Pharr Literacy program said it all began with her parent’s love of helping others. After her parents retired, they would visit the Valley in the summers. Since her mother Elva had been in the area during her college years to do missionary work, they both decided to come down. They both began volunteering at a hospital in Reynosa and they kept coming back each summer.

“Eventually one winter they were watching the news and there was about a foot of snow in Ohio,” Michal explains. “They both looked at each other and said, “Why would we ever want to go back?””

That year, they sold their house in Ohio and moved permanently in the Valley. Soon they began to notice there were problems in the community. “My parents are the kind of people that want to help and do whatever they can,” she said.

They decided to teach English classes in the community and in 2003, the program became bigger and they decided it needed to stand on its own. The Literacy program obtained a 501c3, which allowed them to be a nonprofit organization.

The Pharr Literacy Project was previously located in two offices at the Pharr Housing Authority and in twelve different locations throughout the Valley. Michal said being in the Pharr Housing Authority location allowed them to help people that were living in housing.

The Pharr Literacy Project offers more than just literacy classes; Michal says they are interested in knowing the needs of the person as a whole. “We try to find or identify the root causes of poverty and find a solution to those problems. We want to change systems and make society different and make it better so people can become self sufficient. With this, their families can be sustainable on their own.”

Family needs like food and clothing are important she said, but knows that providing opportunities in education is important as well. “They are not just a number, or a means to get a grant,” she said.

The literacy project offers classes in English as a second language, GED classes in English and in Spanish, computer classes, knitting, painting, pottery music and theater. The program also offers classes for personal development.

Students are required to clock in as they enter the center and clock out when they leave. Doing this teaches the students the importance of work and know this is what is done in a real job. “We ask them to consider this their job, even do they are not getting paid,” she said.

Students are also required to call in if they are not going to attend. If they fail to continue with classes, they are dropped for the term and asked to enroll the following term.

The English emergence class which gives the students a chance to develop self esteem and self confidence is a popular class that has a waiting list. In this class, students are able to practice and interact with other students what they have learned in the English classes. They are taught pronunciation, punctuation and grammar.

Classes at the center run on a quarterly basis and are taught three times a week. The center currently services approximately 500 students and with the new center, is expected to service more than 700 students. The center has about 200 volunteers. All students are required to work 10 hours of volunteer work which is part of the concept of “giving back” they teach. Students are able to work in the front desk, provide janitorial services or help with other duties given to them.

Organizations who will be housed at the Pharr Literacy Project include The Historical Commission, The Pharr Chamber of Commerce — which will have a Small Business Information office, AmeriCorps, the Work Force Commission and the Pharr Police Department, which will have a satellite center housed there. They also plan to have a mobile food pantry to help people in need.

The new building will also have a full kitchen and a nursery that will provide free child care to students. Michal said childcare is a big barrier for some students and providing them with that will allow them to go to class and learn.

Now, what started off as just teaching basic English classes, is in its new phase with the new location. With the help of the organizations that will be housed in the building, it will help the community in greater numbers. For now Michal continues her parent’s dream, which has now become her passion. “I enjoy doing this. I enjoy it — it is very fulfilling.”

Classes through the Pharr Literacy Project are free. For more information call 956-783-7746 or visit their Web site: