DMACC Adult Literacy Center Changes Lives; Volunteers Needed to Meet Demand for Center’s Services

Posted 6/1/2022

​​​Kay Runner (pictured above), 75, of Des Moines has been both a student and coach at the Adult Literacy Center at DMACC.

One in six adults in Polk County struggle with reading

  • The Adult Literacy Center at DMACC provides free services to help adults improve their reading, writing and speaking skills.

  • The Center relies on the support of Volunteer Literacy Coaches to fulfill its mission and is currently in need of additional coaches to meet demand.

  • “The Adult Literacy Center at DMACC changed my world,” said Kay Runner, a lifelong Des Moines resident who came to the Center for help.

When Kay Runner of Des Moines quickly reads a street sign or the name of a store on its marquee, she doesn’t take the passing moment for granted. These everyday sights were once an everyday challenge for Runner, now 75.

Years after dropping out of high school, Runner made the decision to walk into the Adult Literacy Center (ALC) at DMACC, which was formerly housed at Drake University. It wasn’t easy; the first time she tried, she turned around and left. But she came back — and her life changed.

“The Adult Literacy Center at DMACC has totally turned my life around,” Runner said. “I couldn’t read well for many years, and now I can. I understand what I’m reading now, whether it’s a sign or an article or a book. It’s changed my world.”

The Adult Literacy Center, which launched nearly 50 years ago as a partnership between DMACC and Drake University, provides free resources and support to help adults with their reading, writing and speaking skills.

The Center has been located at the DMACC Urban Campus in downtown Des Moines since 2018, but it is not necessary to be a DMACC student to utilize its services. The Center is available to all adults, age 18 and older, is currently funded through grants from the United Way of Central Iowa and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, with additional support from DMACC. Three part-time staff members oversee the Center and the Volunteer Literacy Coaches who make its services possible.

“Last year, the Adult Literacy Center at DMACC served more than 200 adults in the Des Moines area, and we expect that number to grow in 2022,” said Vickie Merrifield, Adult Literacy Center at DMACC Coordinator. “One in six adults in Polk County struggle with reading, and 43 million U.S. adults read, write and do basic math at or below a third-grade level.

“Our services help adults improve their skills and feel empowered to change their lives, whether it’s gaining the confidence to apply for a new job, train for a new career or simply be able to read to their children.”

Volunteer literacy coaches needed

The Adult Literacy Center (ALC) at DMACC relies on the dedication of volunteers to fulfill its mission. Volunteer Literacy Coaches are asked to spend 60-90 minutes working one-on-one with an assigned ALC student each week. The Center provides materials to use, as well as guidance on tutoring strategies for each individual.

The Center currently has about 40 volunteers, but with more adults reaching out to the Center for help every week, there is an immediate need for more volunteers to meet demand.

“Our volunteers consistently tell us how rewarding their experience is; they build lasting relationships with the students they work with, and they get to see them grow and better their lives over time,” said Anne Murr, Adult Literacy Center at DMACC Literacy Specialist.

To become a Volunteer Literacy Coach, individuals are asked to participate in one 90-minute training session with the ALC staff. This month, two training sessions will be offered on Thur., June 9, at the DMACC Urban Campus, specifically from 10:30 a.m. to Noon and again from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. To RSVP to attend either of these sessions, please call (515) 248-7517 or email Merrifield at

Paying it forward: Students become coaches

Runner said school was a struggle for her, though she could never quite pinpoint the reason why. She was a hard worker and curious about the world. She liked to learn. But eventually, the frustration was overwhelming and she dropped out after her sophomore year of high school.

She began working in food service and later spent about 18 years working at grocery store, where she worked her way up to the position of Produce Manager. When the store closed, she started her own business, Handy Gal Painting, which she ran for almost 40 years. Through it all, she kept a secret from most people: She couldn’t read.

“Like many people in that situation, I came up with workarounds to be successful,” Runner said. “I called my mom a lot for help with reading documents; a neighbor helped me with the books for my business. I was good at the work itself, but I couldn’t really run things the way I wanted. Not being able to read held me back.”

After getting started at the Adult Literacy Center at DMACC, Runner also got some answers to questions she had about her past. She visited a local doctor and eventually received a diagnosis of dyslexia. The ALC staff was then able to create a specific approach and learning plan for Runner.

“Everyone learns differently and faces different challenges,” Murr said. “Our goal is to help each individual in an individual way.

“There is a true ripple effect to what we are able to do; the adults we serve then take that learning into their relationships with their children and other family members. The knowledge and skills gained don’t stop with them. They are shared, and the positive impact grows.”

In the more than three decades that Runner has been coming to the Adult Literacy Center, she has earned her GED (now called HiSET​ or High School Equivalency Test) through DMACC and also made the transition from ALC student to coach. In recent years, she has tutored four different adults at the Center, something she said would have never imagined possible in her younger years.

“It’s never too late to believe in yourself and keep learning,” Runner said.

To learn more about the Adult Literary Center at DMACC, visit

For more information, contact: Vickie Merrifield, (515) 248-7517,

Additional note

The Adult Literacy Center (ALC) at DMACC is funded solely through grants and donations, with additional support from DMACC. Donations from individuals help the Center purchase more learning materials and books for students, and are greatly appreciated. If you would like to make a donation to help support the Center’s work, you can do so online using the DMACC Foundation’s “Make A Gift” donation form​. When completing the form to submit your donation, be sure to type “Adult Literacy Center at DMACC” in the donation designation comment box.​

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