Tea time: University of Maine professor’s mother-in-law inspires literacy fundraiser

Literacy Tea

Sometimes you just need an excuse to get dressed up and have a little tea with friends. For the past five years, Literacy Volunteers of Bangor has been doing just that every spring while raising thousands of dollars to support their adult literacy programs. And it all started thanks to University of Maine Associate Professor of Literacy Susan Bennett-Armistead.

“My mother-in-law, Joan Armistead, was part of a group in the greater Detroit area that put on a literacy tea every year to raise money for literacy programming in Detroit schools,” Bennett-Armistead says.

A literacy tea is a fundraiser where groups can sponsor a table, and each group decorates their table in the theme of a different children’s book. After the decorating is finished, everyone drinks tea and eats finger food.

Joan Armistead was an elementary school teacher and later a Reading Recovery teacher, Bennett-Armistead says.

“When she did them they would give the money they raised to schools for library books or to bring in a children’s author as a speaker,” she says.

Six years ago, Bennett-Armistead was serving on the board of Literacy Volunteers of Bangor when she decided to bring the literacy tea idea to Maine to benefit the nonprofit’s adult education programs. Literacy Volunteers provides free English language tutoring to about 300 adults in the Bangor area. It has three part-time staff members, but relies mostly on its nearly 400 volunteers, most of which are tutors.

“That first year, it was basically me and some friends,” Bennett-Armistead recalls.

Since then, Literacy Volunteers’ staff has organized the event, which has become the nonprofit’s top money-raiser. Executive Director Mary Marin Lyon says it brought in nearly $20,000 in 2016.

“Ever since its inception it has continued to grow,” Lyon says. “We’re almost at our tipping point where if it gets any bigger we won’t be able to host it at John Bapst (Memorial) High School anymore, because their capacity of about 300 people is where we’re at.”

Each year the Literacy Volunteers brings in a children’s book author to speak at the literacy tea. This year’s speaker will be Jeannie Brett of York, author and illustrator of “My Cat, Coon Cat.”

Lyon says one reason for the event’s success is that it appeals to all ages. Kids and adults alike enjoy decorating tables in the theme of their favorite children’s literature. Another fun aspect, she says, is getting dressed up and having tea.

“Sometimes we need an excuse to get dressed up, even during mud season,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun and creates a sense of community.”

The College of Education and Human Development is now a sponsor of the tea, along with businesses such as Machias Savings Bank, the Bangor Daily News, Darling’s Auto Group and Eastern Maine Community College.

“When we talk to businesses they understand the connection between strong literacy skills and their current and potential workforce. So they are anxious to support it, and we’re grateful for the college’s support too,” Lyon says.

This year’s literacy tea will be Sunday April 2, 3-5 p.m. at John Bapst. Tickets are available at the Literacy Volunteers website, lvbangor.org/literacytea.

Contact: Casey Kelly, 207.581.3751