A Different Calling
When it comes to nonprofit organizations, Susan Sherard, who took the helm of the Moore County Literacy Council this fall, has been around.
"I always like learning new things," she says.
Sherard has done stints with Planned Parenthood and an organization to help the physically and mentally disadvantaged. She has been on the boards of a county library, a group home, a crisis ministry and a food bank.
Sherard also has been an ordained Episcopal priest for 21 years. She founded and led a parish nestled in the mountains of Madison County. She helped start a hospice there, and was instrumental in bringing Habitat for Humanity into the region.
Until she accepted the job as executive director of the Literacy Council, Sherard was working as a church consultant, helping organize retreats. While the job was fulfilling, its travel demands began to wear her out.
"When this job came open," she says, "the attraction was to be able to work where I live, to have the opportunity to make a difference in my own community."
Sherard admits that she "knew nothing about literacy" before she started her new job -- but that really doesn't seem to have slowed her down.
"This is allowing me to meet a whole new need in the world," she says.
Her goal is expansion. The council -- which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this January -- serves more than 100 students, mostly adults, with one-on-one tutoring sessions and other programs. Sherard and her board are looking to increase the number of students they serve and to expand into other parts of Moore County, including places like Robbins, Westmoore and Taylortown.
Sherard let the board know before she took the director position that she wanted to be part of a dynamic organization.
"I told them, 'If this is a maintenance job, I'm not the person for it,'" she says.
In Moore County, about 22 percent of the adults operate below a proficient literacy level.
"Maybe they would be able to sign a check or application, but they wouldn't be able to fill out the application," Sherard says. "They might get to the doctor, but they may not be able to fill out the form. That's just startling to me. You don't know that every day you're next to people that really cannot read or write well enough to do the things you need to do during the day."
Because free education is readily available only to children, those adults who struggle in reading and writing may have a hard time finding help.
"When you get to be 18 or 19 or older and not able to read or write," Sherard says, "there aren't easy opportunities for you to be able to make up the difference. And that's why places like the Literacy Council exist."
The council, like most nonprofits, sometimes has shortages of two things: funds and volunteers. It needs as many as 25 new volunteers to meet their growing student base.
"It's a labor of love," Sherard says, "because it's also hard to find money for."
Petite and energetic, Sherard says her new 9-to-5 schedule has taken some getting used to -- she's finding less time for her early-morning walks and tending to her garden.
"It just really was a shock to my system," she says. "I'm having to adjust my life rhythm around this. This is the first time in 20 years that I haven't been working in a church."
Although she is transitioning from the pulpit to the desk, Sherard says she doesn't see her position with the council as a religious platform.
"I have immense respect for the (views) of all people," she says.
Started as Volunteer
When she started her church in Madison County, she wanted to provide an alternative to what she calls the more fundamentalist types who "only served their own flocks." Theologically, she says, "there was no place for people who had questions."
Still, Sherard says her biggest motivation is the biblical commandment to "love your neighbor as you love yourself."
"I grew up in Mississippi in the '50s and '60s during the civil rights movement," she says. "There was an awareness of a public response."
Sherard moved to Moore County in 2000 after marrying Tom Paneck, a residential designer who owns Dream Home Designs. She found out about the Literacy Council last winter through its annual spelling bee, and she originally wanted to serve as a volunteer tutor.
"But then I learned they needed an executive director," she says. "So I wound up with a job and a student at the same time. That was really my introduction."
Now, two months into her job, Sherard is busy organizing files, pursuing grant opportunities and researching literacy issues. She says she never hesitated to ask for help in her first few weeks.
"I made lists of questions," she says, "I always had long lists."
'Falling Into Place'
Sherard's work has impressed her colleagues. Katherine Stevenson, president of the council's 12-member board, says Sherard's considerable administrative skills have been a huge resource for the council.
"This is a woman," she says, "that the more you get to know her, it's just better and better."
Sherard, Stevenson says, has a unique ability to help others see their strengths and unite them to a common goal.
"It has just been wonderful," she says, "to think through with her where we are and where we really would like to go."
Pam Giambelluca, the council's program director, says Sherard has been decisive and organized from the get-go.
"She can take something and really move with it," Giambelluca says. "Everything seems to be falling into place."
Sherard still works weekends as a consultant to churches and sometimes acts as a "supply priest" for parishes with absentee leaders. She still considers the priesthood a vocation but says her work with the Literacy Council holds a special calling, too.
"One day I would like to be a parish priest again," she says. "But this was as much a calling for me as my call to be a priest. It was as compelling."
Katherine Evans can be reached at 693-2480 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story