Peg Coker grew up in a diverse, culturally rich neighborhood in Lakeview, Chicago. Down the street lived a World War II veteran who came home with a Japanese war bride. An Auschwitz survivor was another neighbor.
When Coker, now 62, moved to the suburbs, she “couldn’t find any culture anywhere,” she recalled, noting there weren’t even ethnic grocery stores nearby.
So, the sociology major became a volunteer at Literacy Volunteers Fox Valley to try to “find culture,” she said.
“[I have a] thirst for knowledge about people,” Coker said. “When it’s said that the United States is a melting pot, it’s all of those flavors, those cultures, that make the pot so wonderful.”
Literacy Volunteers Fox Valley helps adults read, write and understand English more naturally through the help of volunteer tutors who work one-on-one with students an hour a week.
The underlying goal is to help students assimilate into the community by giving them a voice and helping them find their own ways of becoming contributing members of society.
Coker so believed in the Literacy Volunteers Fox Valley mission that she quickly became executive director, a position she’s held for 27 years.
“I had a tutor recently tell me her student has learned a lot of English, but beyond that, she felt she was connecting that person to the community,” Coker said. “She felt she was a small part of the student’s family, and the student was part of the Batavia family.”
One of Coker’s favorite quotes from a tutor has often helped her explain how Literacy Volunteers Fox Valley is about so much more than a simple English lesson.
“I’ve always felt that I learn far more than my students,” the tutor told Coker. “I learn about other cultures; my stereotypes are shattered; and I find common bonds.”
In the early days, Coker worked about 20 hours a week as she learned how to manage the nonprofit. But today, that work load is closer to 60 hours as Coker recruits and organizes tutors and other volunteers, works to raise funds, writes grants and more.
Her endless energy and encouraging attitude are just two of the reasons she was nominated as an Everyday Hero by two of her board members.
Coker is quick to point the finger to others whom she believes are deserving of recognition.
“It’s the people who are involved in the organization who are the real heroes here,” Coker said. “I just sit back and watch … . It’s like watching flowers bloom every day, both from the volunteers’ side and the students’ side. Our volunteers say they learn as much as their students.”
But it’s her volunteers who point the finger right back.
“Peg is one of those perfect people to nominate because she is extraordinarily humble,” said Jonathan Gripe, a Literacy Volunteers Fox Valley Board member of three years. “But she has a real heart for this. A lot of us can say, ‘I’ll be on the board and do what I can to help,’ but Peg is the one who moves the machine forward.”
“I think she just really is able to hit home why people should support the cause of Literacy Volunteers,” said Ellen Kamps, a board member of two years. “People get it – it’s a nonprofit; we want you to donate money so we can train tutors to teach ESL students one-on-one. That’s the rudimentary cause. But she’s really able to emphasize that, usually, [our students] are from other countries and have so many talents and can contribute and want to contribute so deeply to our community … .
“She empowers volunteers, she empowers donors and she absolutely empowers students.”
The Coker Lowdown
Who she is: Peg Coker, executive director of Literacy Volunteers Fox Valley
Village of residence: St. Charles
Family: Husband, Craig; son, Tom
Hobbies: Reading, riding her bike, cheering for the Chicago Cubs
Fun fact: “I grew up eight blocks away from Wrigley Field. I used to cut out of high school and go sit in the bleachers.”