Adult Basic Literacy Education (ABLE)

Felicia Poettgen and Karlene Diekroeger

Adult Basic Literacy Education, or ABLE, was founded in 1985 with the help of a librarian by the name of Amie Morrow, who was instrumental in starting the program. Through her work at the library and her love for reading, Amie saw there was a great literacy deficit in the community. After four years, ABLE continued its services by becoming a United Way agency.

By the early 1990s, the annual used book sale fundraiser was launched, and it continues to be a fundraiser partnership between ABLE and the Missouri River Regional Library today. Now, the used book sale is ABLE’s main source of funding outside of the assistance from the United Way. 

When Amie started the ABLE program, many students didn’t have functional literacy. There were still people who couldn’t read at all, and they used the very basic  “Laubach Way to Reading” course to teach sounds and names of letters to adults.

“At that time, the ABLE program was just working with adults,” says ABLE director Felicia Poettgen. “Most recently, with technology, TV, internet, and smartphones, we don’t see that low of a level of literacy any more. Most of the people we encounter [today] are reading on a third to fourth-grade level, but that really isn’t high enough to help them in everyday literacy.” 

To address the need, ABLE recruits and trains volunteers to help promote literacy in the Jefferson City community through tutoring and classes.

“It’s important to focus on adult literacy because it helps people become the best person they can be. It opens more doors for folks, especially if they have trouble reading,” says Mike Downey, ABLE board member. Mike has served on the ABLE board since 1994. 

Carol Davidson tutors and an adult student.
Photo provided by ABLE.

“It’s important to focus on adult literacy because it helps people become the best person they can be.” 

— Mike Downey

“The great thing is you’re on a board with smart, caring people who all want to help make sure the program is helping and improving,” he says.

“I got involved with ABLE in 1989 through a dear friend, Amie Morrow,” says volunteer and ABLE board member Carol Davidson. “We all need to be able to read. There is always some form, some information we need to know. Reading is the basis for everything. During these 30 some years, I found it amazing how often we encounter adults who cannot read.”


Today, ABLE serves the community through three free areas of programming: adult literacy classes for those over the age of 16 and not currently enrolled in school, English as a second language classes, and a sixth-grade tutoring program within Jefferson City’s middle schools.  

As part of the middle school program, ABLE hopes to lower the dropout rate. For adult learners, they hope to raise the community’s economy by helping students become more employable and, in turn, better help their children academically. 

“With adults in the Jefferson City School District HiSET prep classes, we assist those working to obtain their HiSET equivalency,” says Felicia, adding that students who left school before graduation and have been out of school for a number of years benefit the most from one-on-one tutoring. “You must be able to read well to be proficient in all the HiSET test categories in order to pass.”

ABLE also provides one-on-one tutoring with students from other countries once they have mastered enough English to converse comfortably. 

“We’ve had students from Russia, Taiwan, China, Chile, Nepal, and many other countries. Our volunteers enjoy their time with this population and feel they get as much out of the sessions as the students,” says Felicia. 

As Felicia recounts, Amie once mused, “How can we put ourselves out of business?”  The answer: reach people before they drop out of school. 

“About 10 years ago, we started working with sixth-grade middle school students. Being educators, we decided sixth grade was a transition year and still young enough that one-on-one help is successful with tutoring,” says Felicia.

The program is for select sixth graders at Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark middle schools, who meet with ABLE volunteer tutors once a week during the school day. 

“We are hoping to reach those students who may fall through the cracks. These are the kids who aren’t that far behind but need to be reading at grade level before the materials become more difficult. With the one-on-one, they are comfortable with a tutor who is there to answer questions,” Felicia explains.

“The tutor program has exploded under the leadership of Felicia Poettgen,” adds Carol. “She does a great job of matching tutors to students in both the adult and middle school programs.”

Felicia Poettgen

“Usually, people seek us out because they’ve heard from our existing volunteers how rewarding it is.”

— Felicia Poettgen


“I like to brag that, for the most part, I’ve not had to really work at recruiting volunteers,” says Felicia. “Usually, people seek us out because they’ve heard from our existing volunteers how rewarding it is.”

Felicia started out as a volunteer herself before being recruited to become interim director, which has turned into eight exciting years. 

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “It’s like my fourth career, but this is definitely my best one. It feels like being among friends and also seeing that you’ve helped someone when a student is matched with a good volunteer.”

ABLE has more than 75 volunteers, with the largest group being 50 middle school volunteers. All volunteers must go through an application process, background check, and training. Volunteers across all disciplines and ranging in age from young professionals to retirees are welcome. 

Felicia says it all boils down to the people — students and volunteers alike. 

“The people who come to ABLE are there because they want to be,” she says. “They are working very hard to better themselves. Our volunteers stay with us and look forward to working with all of our students.”

“As I learned about the program, and being an English major, it was all I needed to get on board,” Carol recalls. “Books and reading have always held an important place in my life. I just can’t imagine not helping someone who doesn’t know how to read.

“The Jefferson City area is so blessed with so many organizations and nonprofits to help others,” she continues. “After all these years, there is still a great need for tutors to work with those who come to us for help. Anytime we can help anyone, we try to do this. This program is perhaps the most rewarding venture in my life.”

“After all these years, there is still a great need for tutors to work with those who come to us for help.”

— Carol Davidson

Annual Used Book Sale

Each March, the used book sale is hosted as a joint effort with the Missouri River Regional Library. 

“Since partnering with the library, the book sale has been humming for years,” says Mike. “I think the first sale made $2,000 after expenses, but consistently we’ve made $50,000 to $60,000 in recent years, which we split down the middle with the library. It’s a great fundraiser.” 

Photo provided by ABLE.

“The idea for a book sale was a natural one,” Carol adds. “All the books are donated and sorted according to the Dewey Decimal System. That’s why it does so well. The book sale has become an annual community event!” 

With the book sale being organized and categorized in this way, it’s easy to find the books you’re looking for.

“You really almost have to see it because it’s just so ginormous,” Mike says. “Not only do we get people from out of state but all over Missouri too. At The Knights of Columbus at St. Martin’s, every nook and cranny is filled with a book. 

Photo provided by ABLE.

Mike also praises Carol as key to the book sale’s success.  

“Carol is the one who really recruits the volunteers to do shifts at the book sale, and I’m the treasurer,” he says. “That’s the beauty of our board: Some people are really heavy in the education side of things, and Carol is great in the organizing side of things. It’s amazing the army of volunteers that assist in getting this book sale taken care of. It is a sight to behold.”