20 years ago, I had no idea how much my life would change after volunteering to drop off winter coats at the Charles Rogers Academy in Detroit. I walked into the building, and immediately realized that the children needed much more than jackets. They needed open-hearted people to light a path forward to a life of possibilities where, largely due to poverty and a lack of social justice in the inner city, few existed.
Little did I know that day that I would find my joy and mission in life. My heart was moved. I saw potential rather than a vacuum, and others began to join me in volunteering at the school, providing interventions such as reading buddies and academic enrichment since they were also moved by the need and how we could help.
In 2002, the late Dr. Joanne Wagerson, a good friend, and I incorporated Beyond Basics, a student-centered academic enrichment non-profit organization. Our goal was to bring equity in education to struggling students in vulnerable communities. By 2004, we realized that many of the children could not read. Yet the educational system expected them to tolerate a school day and for their teachers to be successful in educating them.
We realized it would take major intervention to eradicate literacy in metropolitan Detroit and beyond, to literally save the futures of thousands of children. It took time to get it right. At first we thought we would do literacy enrichment – give more children time with books and doing activities like art and writing projects and have volunteers read with them. Through trial and error, we learned what works. By 2008, we had piloted a proprietary one-on-one multi-sensory tutoring program, and today our K-12 students attain grade level reading proficiency in an average of six weeks.
Thanks to the cadre of volunteers, for whom I have endless gratitude, we have served 90,000 students to date; we have a professional staff of 100, and committed corporate partners, foundations, and individual donors whose support facilitates the work we achieve for our students, including not only tutoring but art and writing, and mentorship. We have been fortunate to have raised more than $20 million to date. In 2018, we opened a Beyond Basics Family Literacy Center at the Durfee Innovation Society in Detroit, achieving our goal to bring literacy to everyone in the neighborhood. In addition, we have published more than 75,000 books containing the children’s writing and have donated 40,000 coats to those in need.
Our work impacts not only the students whose lives are transformed by literacy, but also their families. When children learn to read, in many cases they help their parents read. Then they will become parents who read to their children, setting up the next generation as lifelong readers. In this way, we eradicate illiteracy, the world’s most solvable disability. It has also changed the lives of all of the people who have helped bring Beyond Basics where it is today, knowing they have had a hand in transforming lives.
Over the years, I have reflected on how I was able to show up for the kids and uncover my passion for literacy. It was not a forgone conclusion. Early on, I was acting boldly for them, but not necessarily in other parts of my life. There were times when self-doubt crept in, threatening to derail the overall pursuit.
I took inventory of my life and began to prioritize substance and unconditional love over all else. The goal was to adopt a mindset of courage and diligence in order to stay the course and achieve something everlasting versus fleeting.
These traits have kept Beyond Basics on the path to make meaningful change in the lives of those we serve, no matter what challenges arise, most notably, the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 forced an immediate pivot to remote tutoring, securing each child and tutor with a device, and maintaining high levels of attendance at a time where so many families were adversely affected in every way by the virus, particularly in the hard-hit neighborhoods we serve.
Taking an account of your life isn’t easy, but this kind of soul searching is ultimately empowering, and necessary to live an authentic life. It helps you to move through fear that limits us, to erase doubt, and to persevere despite the voices in your head that give you every reason to opt out.
The only way to grow, even in retirement, when you may be thinking about your next act, is to dig deep. You may uncover an old passion or discover a new one and turn it into action. For me, that was listening to my heart when I first walked into that school building. I truly believe it is our purpose as human beings to help one another, to walk alongside one another in whatever way feels important to you. Our society needs you more than ever. And I guarantee that in doing so, you will feel more alive, and more vital than ever before.
Steps to finding joy and your purpose
- Take a personal inventory of yourself – what are your thoughts, words, traits?
- Take time to contemplate what is beyond this life to add value to the present moment.
- Live in the “space of possibilities” rather than in fear.
- It’s okay to move in one direction and then choose another.
- You don’t have to figure out the whole road at once.
- Lead with your heart – don’t sift things through your head to find a reason not to take action.
Twenty years ago, Pamela Good took the Joy Road highway exit to a struggling school in Detroit, delivering coats to kids who needed them. That trip turned into a revelation that the children needed much more than coats. This led her to cofound Beyond Basics to provide intensive one-on-one reading tutoring and literacy enrichment programs for students in Detroit. Their program achieves academic grade level movement in an average of six weeks. Beyond Basics’ proven methods unlock the miracle and power of reading and open a whole new world and future to those who need it most.
To learn more about Pamela, visit www.beyondbasics.org.