Program Report: Debbie McCarthy- The Augustine Literacy Project

Debbie McCarthyAfter our first year of Reading Rangers, I reluctantly agreed to go through the training offered by the Augustine Literacy Project to see whether it, or some portion of it, could be used to help make the Rangers more effective. It was Debbie McCarthy, our speaker, who finally convinced me to join the two-week training session that was about to begin in a church near Downtown Durham.

The experience, I have to confess, was bittersweet.  The Augustine Literacy Project was founded by Linda McDonough who now runs Just Right Academy on Erwin Road and participated in the training, most of which was conducted by Debbie. The organization is sponsored by and operates out of the Holy Family Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, although it now is a 501C3 and raises its own support.

I spent 20 years either as a student or teacher in Catholic schools and was around a lot of educators that where devoted to their students, but I can only think of one or two others that matched the passion for helping kids as Debbie and Linda who are both flirting with sainthood here on earth, if they haven’t gotten there already.Steed Augustine Intro

In the “class picture” taken at the end of the training I stood out like a sore thumb as the lone male, and a big one, in the class. And like a sore thumb is how I felt during most of the training. I have never spent so much concentrated time with so many highly nurturing women. The  Orton-Gillingham method that the project is based on is heavy on phonetics and has proved to be effective with helping dyslexics and others with severe reading difficulties learn to read.

If grades had been given by Debbie, I would have also stood out, but not at the top of the class. I struggled with the training. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, and I’d read every dog story in the Richmond Public Library long before I got involved in football. Phonics seems needlessly tedious to me. To be really good in the use of this technique I would need more than the two weeks training and I’m not sure I’d have the patience.

To introduce her topic, Debbie shared some statistics on the number of children that aren’t reading up to standards in this country and especially among children in poverty and children whose parents are not native English speakers. We’ve heard the numbers before and they are overwhelming.

Debbie also shared what could be the motto of the Augustine Literacy Project “Tutor one child and change two lives.” This was obviously true in the telling of her story of meeting Tyrell when he was nine years old and the four years she spent teaching him how to read and how it changed both of their lives.

In the two years following my training, I more than fulfilled the programs requirement to complete at least 60 tutoring sessions, doing two a week at Y.E. Smith for two years. But neither of the 2nd graders assigned to me where struggling with the mechanics of reading as much as the ants in their pants.  In fact, some of the sessions towards the end of the year ended up dealing with other things they were struggling with in the classroom such as how to tell time or understand money. (Why are pennies and nickels bigger than, but worth less, than dimes?)

During her years at the Augustine Literacy Project, Debbie has launched many tutors into this saintly service and replicated the program in several other North Carolina communities.  This includes two other Rotarians, Mikel Tharp and Marge Nordstrom both of whom are probably at the beatification stage on the way to sainthood. We may have also heard from another saint, speaking through his widow, Annie Clement, who committed on the spot to fund scholarships for three additional Rotarians to take the training.

Debbie invoked the starfish story about the kid that is throwing starfish washed up on the beach back into the ocean and being mocked for attempting an impossible task.  Personally, I’ve always thought that story was totally inappropriate. Augustine tutors are trained to help kids that need more than being flung back into the waves. Saving all those under-performing starfish is a different kind of challenge and that’s where things like the Reading Rangers come in. You don’t have to be proficient in Orton-Gillingham to be a Reading Ranger. But you do need some time and patience. Good hearing is also helpful. Genetics, too much rock and roll and miles behind a lawnmowers have taken mine, which is why I have retired from being an active Reading Ranger.

I was a little surprised to see Debbie at the meeting because the schedule had Ele Ross as the speaker. Ele has long been a key member of Debbie’s part time staff in the organization. Ele, of course, is also the wife of Past President Dave Ross.  Also bittersweet is the news that Debbie didn’t mention, that is, that she is retiring and the Augustine Literacy Project is looking for a new Executive Director…and saint in residence…tough shoes to fill.

For more about the organization you can go to their website at

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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