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Norma Nelson: Committed to Service

Kenna Arana on Monday, 07 October 2019.

Norma Nelson - Alliance for Catholic Education Founders Prize

Norma Nelson wants to change a life-altering statistic.

“By the end of third grade, two-thirds of children in Dallas County are reading below grade level,” says Norma (ACE 10, Dallas).

Norma serves as the president and chief executive director of Readers 2 Leaders, a nonprofit organization in Dallas whose vision is to help all Dallas children read at or above grade level. Over the past eight years, Norma has helped Readers 2 Leaders significantly grow its Dallas footprint.

"When Readers 2 Leaders first started, I was the first employee and I worked with a handful of volunteers."

“When Readers 2 Leaders first started, I was the first employee and I worked with a handful of volunteers,” Norma says. “The founders rented a location in a shopping center, thinking that maybe people would stop in to pick up some books on their way to the grocery store or AutoZone. Volunteers would lead read-alouds, book circles, and reading centers for the children who came in.”

Today, Readers 2 Leaders can still be found at its original “Booktown” location, although the service area has expanded from West Dallas to include Pleasant Grove and Uptown. Readers 2 Leaders partners with six Dallas schools to tutor students during the school day. Additionally, the organization runs two after-school programs and two summer programs. No longer the sole employee, Norma is now one of 15 full-time employees who train and work with 250 volunteers per year. Readers 2 Leaders’ 2-hour-per-week tutoring program serves 600 children annually, and the organization supports an additional 316 children through an instructor training program.

In recognition of her dedication to helping all Dallas children develop their reading skills and her success in helping Readers 2 Leaders develop a high-quality literacy tutoring program, Norma is one of two ACE graduates receiving the Scott C. Malpass Founders Prize this year. This award is presented annually to two ACE graduates who personal embodiment of the three pillars of ACE—community, spirituality, and teaching—has inspired them to make an entrepreneurial, high-impact contribution to their communities. Anthony Holter is also receiving the prize this year.

As the first employee and now the president and chief executive officer, Norma has been integral in the growth and development of Readers 2 Leaders since it started in 2011. In the 2017-18 school year, 100 percent of students involved in Readers 2 Leaders programming demonstrated reading growth, 93 percent of students progressed at a normal or accelerated rate, and 80 percent of students progressed at an accelerated growth rate of 150 percent. 

Earlier this year, Readers 2 Leaders earned a spot as one of five finalists in the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’s Social Innovation Accelerator competition. “Although we didn’t win, we were able to get on stage, share our story, and make connections with mentors from the local business community,” Norma says. “It’s amazing what you can do when you leverage the power of volunteers.”

Norma’s commitment to service extends beyond her involvement with Readers 2 Leaders. In addition to running Readers 2 Leaders, Norma serves on the board of St. Mary of Carmel Catholic School, one of two schools where she taught at as an ACE teacher. At the end of her first year, her school down-sized from two classes per grade level to one, and Norma moved to St. Mary of Carmel. Norma fell in love with the community at St. Mary of Carmel and taught various grade levels there for a total of almost eight years, also serving as the assistant principal.

"Doing this work requires faith that there will be provisions. You have to act by faith and live by faith."

It was actually the then-principal of St. Mary of Carmel, Thom Suhy (Remick Leadership Program 8), who introduced Norma to the founders of Readers 2 Leaders. The support Thom showed Norma by introducing her is typical of the St. Mary of Carmel community. “The SMC community is strong and it’s very family-oriented,” Norma says.

Norma’s involvement with Readers 2 Leaders and St. Mary of Carmel continue to be linked to each other. Some of the children who participate in Readers 2 Leaders are current St. Mary of Carmel students, and a number of Norma’s former students have come back to volunteer at Readers 2 Leaders.

“Our instructors and volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds,” Norma says. “They are speech pathologists, students, people who volunteered at other literacy nonprofits, and even retired teachers.”

Many instructors return to education after spending time leading reading groups through Readers 2 Leaders. “When our instructors return to the classroom, they are better equipped to be teachers,” Norma says. “We have a strong phonics curriculum and an instructional coach on staff who models good practices and supports our instructors.”

Norma is grateful for her experience as an ACE teacher, which connected her to the St. Mary of Carmel community and helped guide her to the work she is doing with Readers 2 Leaders. “I feel blessed and thankful for the opportunity to be part of this,” Norma says. “It has been a really good experience.”

To this day, she remains close with friends she made through her ACE experience. “There is a strong ACE community in Dallas,” Norma says. “Right after ACE, I lived with my ACE Dallas roommates for an additional five years. I was just hanging out with Erin Duffy-Burke (ACE 10) last night, and Beth Burau (ACE 7) is one of my best friends.”

Along with strong roots in the Dallas community, Norma’s faith has driven her work throughout the past 14 years that she has been living in and serving the Dallas community.

“My faith means being the hands and feet of Christ and doing the very humble things,” Norma says. “Doing this work requires faith that there will be provisions. You have to act by faith and live by faith.”

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