The Literacy Project of Eagle County holds annual luncheon (photos) | VailDaily.com

The Literacy Project of Eagle County holds annual luncheon (photos)

Carolyn Pope
High Altitude Society

Although the featured speaker, Mark Sullivan, was on stage to talk about his best-selling book, "Under a Scarlet Sky," his story was about much more: redemption, despair, humanity and finding a purpose to live on the worst day of his life.

Each year, the Literacy Project of Eagle County holds a luncheon to raise money for its many programs to help people master the written and verbal language of English. Now, in its 17th year, the luncheon has grown to a ballroom full of around 230 people, this year held at The Four Seasons Resort Vail.

Sullivan entranced the audience with his own personal stories as well as discussing his novel. He began his adventure in a Costco parking lot in Bozeman, Montana. He was struggling through an untenable year of loss and financial stress.

"I prayed to God for a purpose, for something to give me meaning," Sullivan said. "It was the worst day of my life, and I realized I was worth more dead than alive."

That night at a dinner party, he listened to a story about a teenage spy from World War II, casually, as an outsider. He didn't completely believe what he heard, but something in the words rocked his soul.

"So, I did what I thought was best;: I took what was left of my wife's and my money and went to Italy to find some old guy, some teenage spy from World War II."

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He spent the next several years entrenched in a story that he had to share. The book was written as a novel, but the basis is all in fact. Much of the documentation he searched for to validate certain facts, but much of the proof has vanished. The story is of an improbable young man, Pino Lella, whose path took a turn from a life of leisure when Milan was destroyed, and he begins to help Jews escape from Italy over the Alps.

Improving People's Lives

The Literacy Project has been helping people over mountains for years, too (though not quite so dramatically). From adults who are functioning below an eight-grade level and would like to move forward in the work force or help their children with homework to study groups for kids and teaching English as a second language, the Literacy Project has been in the verbal trenches for 28 years.

Its mission is to empower Eagle Valley community members of all ages by offering free assistance in acquiring the literacy and English skills they need to function more effectively in their daily lives.

Lois Schwager has been a part of the organization for 16 of those years.

"It's my best hour and a half all week," she said.

She comes home feeling "enervated" and helpful.

"I'm doing my little bit to improve people's lives," Schwager said. "I learn so much about other cultures. I have tremendous admiration for the struggle to learn a new language."

Sunae Utsunomiya, who moved here with her husband from Fukuoka, Japan, has utilized their services.

"I can learn the diversity through learning English," she said. "We don't have the American cultures in Japan."

Interestingly, it's not just about those who use the resource of the Literacy Project to strengthen their reading and writing skills, or learn English when they come from a different country. The volunteers who assist, one-on-one with these immigrants, seem to glean at least as much as their students. Understanding different cultures through language erases boundaries and highlights similarities between people, not their differences.

Just remember, as Sullivan closed: "In difficult times, people put down their differences and find commonality. There are Pinos out there today, and we can do better."

Perhaps, you can be one.

For more information, visit http://www.literacyproject eaglecounty.org.

More on The Literacy Project

The Literacy Project has a multitude of volunteer opportunities which are highly rewarding. For more information, visit http://www.literacyprojecteaglecounty.org.