Gwen Thomas, founder and coordinator of one of the city's largest independent literacy programs, has been named Woman of the Year in the 47th State Assembly District.
"We thought she was a very good choice because this wasn't a political thing," said Joey Hill, an aide to Assemblyman Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles). "She's done good work in our community. She's contributed a lot to it and that's the bottom line."
Thomas runs the West Angeles Literacy Empowerment Team, known as WALET, that operates out of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ on Crenshaw Boulevard. The business teacher and former IBM manager oversees more than 80 volunteers trained in literacy tutoring by the Los Angeles Public Library's Adult Reading Project. Under her leadership, WALET has helped nearly 300 people in southwest and South-Central Los Angeles.
Thomas traveled to Sacramento last week to participate in a ceremony honoring her and other women statewide for their efforts to help the community. The annual awards were initiated by the Assembly's Women's Caucus in honor of Women's History Month.
Thomas started the program in 1992 because she saw a need to teach basic skills. A longtime member of West Angeles church, she developed the program under the auspices of West Angeles pastor Charles Blake. The program grew steadily even though Thomas' office space didn't; she conducts most tutoring business at the church and a Burger King across the street.
Ad-hoc quarters are par for the course for Thomas, a business instructor at West Los Angeles College who divides her days between teaching and building WALET. While she admitted it was nice to get kudos for her work, she says WALET is simply "something I must do."
"When I look at our community, at crime, at drugs--all of this stems from not being able to read," Thomas said. "And when I look at affirmative action and how people are talking about a level playing field, what about the 1.5 million adults in this county who can't read? What about them? There is no level playing field for people like that."
Thomas is hoping to raise money for her program next month by participating in the Human Race, a walkathon sponsored by the Volunteer Center of Los Angeles that aims to help nonprofit groups raise funds. WALET volunteers and friends raised $4,500 last year at the event, 85% of which went to the literacy program. This year, Thomas has her sights set on opening a reading center that will serve as a permanent spot for WALET. She added that she hopes Murray will lend his support in securing a building in the district.
"I'm not a social activist, but I'll fight the battle on this," she said. "Otherwise, we all lose."