High Altitude Society: Literacy Luncheon benefits The Literacy Project nonprofit | VailDaily.com

High Altitude Society: Literacy Luncheon benefits The Literacy Project nonprofit

From left: Lori Puhl, Adina Dean, Colleen Gray and Donna Caynoski attend the Literacy Luncheon for The Literacy Project, which was held in the Four Seasons hotel.
Carolyn Pope | Special to the Daily

“Literacy, is the doorway to lifelong success,” said Literacy Project board member Melanie Dennis,

On June 27, the Literacy Project held its annual luncheon at the Four Seasons in Vail. Liv|Sotheby’s International Realty sponsored the event, which played host to Kirk Wallace Johnson, author of “The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century.”

The nonprofit promotes reading and English literacy. It believes that if every man, woman and child could read, write and comprehend, then the nation would be much closer to solving many of its social problems. The group has several programs, including adult literacy, study friends and math tutoring for middle schoolers, reading buddies and “raising a reader.”

Student Ira Solowitz had severe vision issues, which went uncorrected until he was 15. By then, he was desperately behind with reading and writing. He called Sloan Munter, director of education at the Literacy Project. She matched him up with tutor Tara Van Dernott.

“The smartest thing I did last year was to call Sloan,” Solowitz said. “I couldn’t read, write or spell, and Tara has helped so much.”

At present, the two are working on social media skills and computer literacy, making car and hotel reservations and “living online.”

Van Dernott credits Solowitz for helping her. She had just sent her last child off to school and was depressed, with empty-nest syndrome. Solowitz came into her life at the right time.

“I feel like I had something new in my life,” she said. “I appreciate our time together and especially the lessons I’m learning from Ira. I’ve learned about asking for help and that you’re never too old to learn.”

Johnson then stepped up to the podium and spoke about his book. The audience listened intently has he wove the stories of his time in Fallujah, Iraq, as the only Arabic-speaking person on a team that was helping the city recover from wartime catastrophe. He was the first civilian in to try to reconstruct Fallujah, though 150,000 or some Iraqis were contributing. He left on vacation, and tragedy struck. He was depressed, in a fugue state, when he arrived in Santo Domingo, and proceeded to sleepwalk through his hotel balcony door, ending up with a body full of fractures and stitches.

Soon after, his former Iraqi colleagues, who were running for their lives as a result of working for the U.S. government during the war, contacted him. In December 2006, he wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times calling upon the government to open its doors to these allies. In response, he was flooded with petitions from thousands of refugees, leading him to form the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, a nonprofit that marshaled hundreds of attorneys from the nation’s top law firms to represent their cases on a pro bono basis.

Over the subsequent eight years, the List Project helped more than 2,000 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis resettle in America. Johnson testified before Congress and worked closely with U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy toward the creation of the Special Immigrant Visa program for Iraqis and Afghans who worked for the United States during the wars.

With his body broken and mind exhausted, he found the one activity that would settle his brain: fly-fishing. On one trip to New Mexico, his guide told him snippets of a story of a young man who got away with stealing bird carcasses for their feathers for the British Museum to sell to eccentric people who made flies — most of whom don’t fish. He checked the story when he returned home, and the book “The Feather Thief” was born.

Copies of the book are available at the Bookworm of Edwards. For more information on the Literacy Project, visit http://www.theliteracyprojecteaglecounty.org or call 970-949-5026.