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On October 29th, I handed over the keys to the Learning Ally Athens (Georgia) Studio to the University of Georgia. A bittersweet moment, it marked the end of more than fifty years of Learning Ally on the UGA campus. Fifty-plus years of love, laughter, and friendship, and many, many books recorded in several formats. I thought you might be interested in reading about the why and how this came to happen.
First, some background: back in 1953 Learning Ally (then Recording For the Blind) first organized a chapter at UGA, moving from building to building as University and Learning Ally needs changed. By the 1960s it became clear a permanent space was needed. Volunteers at the time worked hard, wheeled and dealed, and got the Callaway Foundation to agree to donate the money to construct a building for us if the University would loan the land. In the end, Learning Ally paid $1 for a 99-year lease. We were responsible for all utilities and maintenance inside the building, while the University covered maintenance costs from the studs-out. The Athens Studio was completed in 1967.
So, for fifty years we recorded in that studio space, bringing in a cadre of volunteers who represented the great variety of the population of Athens. University professors, homemakers, business professionals, school teachers, college students, blue-collar workers, local celebrities and even some homeless people: they all came through the studio and volunteered, supporting the work we were so well-known for. University and community groups got involved as well, especially the Lions Clubs, the Kiwanis Clubs, the Junior League of Athens, Delta Gamma sorority, and First Book UGA.
Over the years our recording equipment and methods changed drastically, and our use of the studio space changed as well. In the 2000s, while still using VRW software in the studio, we also began using GABR software, developed here in Athens by staff member Fred Smith. GABR allowed some volunteers to work from home. GABR was the precursor to EasyBooks (also developed here in Athens by Jay and Eleanor Cotton), which really opened the door to Learning Ally’s entry into the world of virtual recording.
As many of you know, we took all of our production completely virtual in 2017. While closing nearly every other studio in the country, we held onto the Athens Studio as we observed and assessed the effectiveness of our move to virtual production. While the majority of local volunteers began working from home, I continued hosting events with UGA and community groups, and area Lions continued to come in each month to record their national magazine.
Even before the issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw that our move to virtual was the right way to go: we’ve been able to involve even more volunteers from all over the country (and the WORLD!), and we’ve created even more audiobooks than we had in studio-based production years at a much lower cost.
Since the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve found we’re even more efficient and effective than even we thought, and the reality is that we just do not need the studio space any more. All of the events and activities we did at the studio can be handled online.
Although Learning Ally paid no rent for the space, the Athens Studio cost us about $30,000 a year to maintain (utilities, repairs, maintenance of equipment, insurance, etc. all adds up). While we loved the space and hated saying goodbye to the folks at UGA, we simply could not in good conscience continue spending that much money on what amounted to nostalgia. It’s just not good stewardship of the funds so generously given, especially when those funds could be put towards our many wonderful programs that directly benefit blind and dyslexic students, their families, and their teachers every day.
Because of COVID restrictions, I couldn’t just bring in a bunch of local volunteers and staff to come in and have a clean-out party (too bad, that would have been nice!). So, the first thing I did was bring in local staff (and some helpful spouses) to sort through various categories of items: electronics, paperwork, furnishings, etc. Masked and distanced, we each went through our assigned areas and made determinations about the future of fifty-plus years’ worth of STUFF (imagine going through the home after the death of a crazy uncle, one who collected late-model computer and recording equipment, and never threw anything away).
Next, I brought in local volunteers and supporters, one at a time, and offered them items that I thought might have personal significance to them. For example, one of our booths had a plaque dedicating it to the memory of a woman named Ellen. I was able to contact her daughter, Deirdre, and she came in to receive the plaque. Ellen had died when Deirdre was a young child, and Deirdre had many memories of coming to the studio with her father to see the wonderful work being done in her mother’s memory. She was so grateful to receive the plaque.
Eleanor Cotton helped me get in touch with the family of volunteer emerita Ellen Hanna, who was instrumental in having the studio built all those years ago. Ellen was terminally ill this fall but we were able to give her family awards she had garnered and art work she had lent the studio. The Hanna family was so happy to have these mementos of the life’s work of their beloved mother and grandmother. Note: Ellen died soon afterwards; see the November 25, 2020 blog: https://learningally.org/Solutions-for-School/Educator-Blog/in-gratitude-to-ellen-hanna-lifelong-volunteer
The next step was to separate out the tech equipment that needed to be shipped to Princeton, and that which we could donate to a local charity. Once that was done, local volunteer Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman helped me transport items to be donated.
Many, many hours were spent boxing up, weighing, and shipping computer monitors, cables, routers, etc. back to Princeton. (and returning to the store for more tape, more boxes, more bubble wrap, etc.)
I was distressed about the many years of memorabilia: plaques, photographs, scrapbooks, etc. Because we had been on the UGA campus for so long, I reached out to the folks at the Special Collections Library to see if they would want any of it. I didn’t really expect them to want any of it...but they did! It was such a good feeling to pass it all on to their safekeeping, and to know that the information would be there in the archives, available to anyone looking to research Learning Ally’s presence in Athens.
In addition, we had paintings of significant local interest: they had been done by Irene Dodd, the daughter of Lamar Dodd, for whom the UGA School of Art is named. I was very pleased to pass those valuable artworks on to the school for its collection.
As you can imagine, there was a LOT of paperwork to go through. I am very grateful to volunteers Caren Snook and Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman for their help with this task. We were able to recycle a lot, but there were still bags and bags of shredded documents, much of which I used to pack items going back to Princeton.
Local staff and volunteers were given the opportunity to take home furnishings, shelving, etc., and the rest was donated to a local nonprofit for its thrift store. Many thanks go to staff member Christine Hoffman and her husband Chris Sparnicht, and my husband, David Court, who all came to help load the thrift store truck.
In all, we donated:
2 ½ truckloads of furnishings to the nonprofit Project Safe to help families working their way out of crisis;
2 packed-to-the-gills carloads of technical and office equipment to the nonprofit Free IT Athens to help low-income families and new small businesses with access to affordable technology;
50+ years of scrapbooks, programs, recordings, and other memorabilia to the UGA Special Collections Libraries;
2 paintings by Irene Dodd to the UGA Lamar Dodd School of Art;
several commemorative plaques to family members of those commemorated
I threw out as absolutely little as possible, recycling and gifting as much as I could.
As part of our closure, UGA made a $25,000 donation to Learning Ally, money that will further help us in our mission. We are all so grateful for the relationship we’ve had with the University. I know this will not be the end; it will be interesting to see how the relationship transforms over the years to come.
Sometime next year, the University will raze the building and the lot will become an extension of the parking deck next door. As it is directly across from the Special Collections Library, I expect, like many local staff and volunteers, to park there in the future when I attend events at the Library, and remember our days on campus fondly.
Leading into the 2020 elections, Learning Ally recorded a custom project for the state of Montana to assist Blind and Visually Impaired voters in the state --the Montana Voters Information Pamphlet. This was the first year that the State of Montana approached Learning Ally to assist with this resource. The studio that assisted in the past was not available due to COVID. When their contact reached out to us, they were very excited to hear Learning Ally was 100% virtual recording and would be happy to help with their project. This project followed our conventions that are specific for Blind and Visually impaired readers.
Our narrator was Frank Kouri, proof listener was Paul Kurtz, and final editor was Kathi Jensen. Frank and Paul are the dynamic duo, and have been working as a close team on multiple book projects together for this past year. When they were approached about working on this special project, they jumped at the chance. Kathi is one of our stellar proof listeners, and also a member of our final editing core of volunteers.
Frank lives in Anaheim Hills, California and has been volunteering with Learning Ally for over six years. He transitioned to the Virtual Studio from the Hollywood studio, and has over 600 hours of volunteer service.
Paul lives in Athens, Georgia and has been volunteering with Learning Ally for over seven years. He transitioned to the Virtual Studio from the Athens Studio, and has over 975 hours of volunteer service.
Kathi lives in San Marcos, Texas and has been volunteering with Learning Ally for over twelve and a half years. She transitioned to the Virtual Studio from the Austin Studio, and has over 2,600 hours of volunteer service.
Here is a link to recording on the Montana voters site https://sosmt.gov/elections/ballot_issues/2020-2/.
Lisa, our contact in Montana shared, “Your team did an outstanding job, thank you so much! Everyone who has listened in our office has commented on how professional and what a great job you all did…. We appreciated working with you, it was seamless from start to finish. If you are interested, we may have you produce our audio version in 2022, so please let me know if that is a possibility.”
Thank you to this amazing volunteer team for bringing valuable and important voter information to Montana residents!