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VOL. 131 | NO. 129 | Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Kevin Dean Leaves Legacy at Literacy Mid-South for ‘New Adventure’


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After five years of leading the charge for building a stronger community of skilled readers, Thursday, June 30, is Kevin Dean’s last day as executive director of Literacy Mid-South. He leaves behind a legacy of milestones he orchestrated for the nonprofit organization, which aims to provide literary resources to all backgrounds and ages.

Kevin Dean has led Literacy Mid-South for the past five years, but leaves the organization on solid footing, with more than $1 million in the bank and a strong network of donors.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

A significant financial turnaround, national accolades, expanded learning programs and the creation of the first Mid-South Book Festival are just a few of his accomplishments there.

As for his future, Dean is still mulling over his options. He’s already received some job offers. He’ll also begin doing some consulting work for nonprofits in July. So while his horizons are bright but somewhat uncertain, he does have one solid plan in mind.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m so excited about being a normal reader now instead of being ‘The Book Guy,’” Dean said. “I can’t read a book without 20 people asking, ‘What are you reading right now?’ and if I’m not reading something, they’ll say, ‘What? Why aren’t you reading something?! You’re Literacy Mid-South!’ So I’m really looking forward to just enjoying a book in peace.”

Dean laughs as he shares his dream of reading books in blissful privacy, but meanwhile, the conversation still seems slightly surreal. After all, for the past five years, he really has been the book guy – the face of Literacy Mid-South, the man many of us run to for book recommendations and the region’s resident literacy champion.

“Kevin has been an incredible force for the organization,” said Literacy Mid-South board chairwoman Ashley Bonds. “He’s done really wonderful things in five years. He’s turned this organization around.”

For many people who know him, it’s hard to imagine the organization without him, but Dean says he made the strategic decision to leave on a high note and, to that point, he says the future looks promising for the nonprofit.

“My mom taught me to leave things in better shape than when I found them,” said Dean, who’s won awards from the national ProLiteracy organization and the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence. “Some people were so shocked when I told them it’s time for me to move on, but my whole job was to get this organization to a place where it could be sustained without me. And I’ve accomplished that goal. We now have over $1 million in the bank, we have a fantastic staff and we have a great base of donors who are really committed to our mission. Now it’s time for a new adventure.”

Vernetta Anderson, Literacy Mid-South’s training services manager, is one of the staff members he’s leaving behind.

“It caught us all by surprise, but it was a thing where we all knew this was not going to be a 20-year executive director thing,” said Anderson, who believes one of Dean’s biggest accomplishments was putting Literacy Mid-South on solid financial ground.

During his tenure, Dean hit up every influential person he knew for donations, made smart budget cuts and built up the organization’s reserve funds with dogged determination. Ultimately, he tripled the nonprofit’s liquid assets.

“Our economic turnaround is going to be his claim to fame with us, but he has also made huge changes programmatically,” Anderson said. “We’re still serving adults, but he has expanded our reach through our collaborations, through Read Memphis and our third-grade initiative.”

The Read Memphis Project embeds Literacy Mid-South’s adult learning programs in other nonprofits throughout the city to increase opportunities for adults to obtain critical learning skills. The 3rd Grade Reading Collaborative Action Network works with partnering organizations, businesses and schools to improve the reading proficiency rates of third-grade students in Shelby County.

Dean and his staff also have partnered with 31 libraries throughout the Mid-South to decentralize the Adult Learning Program and make it more accessible.

While Dean is proud of every Literacy Mid-South program, there’s one in particular that’s near to his heart.

“It’s probably not the one that I’ll be remembered for forever, but I’m so proud of the Mid-South Book Festival,” he said. “It’s been a dream of mine to have a book festival in Memphis forever, so the fact that we got the support of the board and the community to let us do a book festival was huge. That’s my baby.”

Dean hopes the festival, now in its third year, will one day become its own separate and nationally noted nonprofit.

Mid-South Book Festival chairwoman and author Courtney Miller Santo shares that goal. On board from the festival’s beginning, Santo said Dean’s passion won her over instantly.

“When I first met Kevin, I was blown away by how committed he was to this fundamental idea that literacy makes us more human,” said Santo, a creative writing and literature instructor at University of Memphis. “And it’s a great tragedy that we have populations in Memphis that don’t have access to the ability to read at a level that not only can help them function on a daily basis, but also tap into literature.”

As he wraps up loose ends and packs up his office during his last week, Dean speaks frankly about his hopes for the future of Literacy Mid-South and his replacement.

“I’m looking forward to seeing them find somebody who’s going to make me look obsolete. I want the organization to grow even bigger and I will always have my place in its history. That’s all I can ask for,” he said. “I want somebody who’s going to come in and kick my butt. Meanwhile, I will support Literacy Mid-South for the rest of my life.”

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