Round One
Photo Credit: Meg Hibbert. Tyler Harden and Tammy Burdick from The Roanoke Times, Heather Brush and Wendy Croy of Montgomery Publishing's The Salem Times Register, pose with their completed game board.
Photo Credit: Heather Brush. Team Spellacious, from left: Becky Farris from Penn Forest; Ellen Witt of Cave Spring and Gail Johnson of Roanoke with their dictionary winnings after Round One during the daytime tournament.

Blue Ridge Literacy, formerly Literacy Volunteers of Roanoke Valley, held its seventh annual Scrabble Tournament on March 22. For the first time, a daytime tourney was added to the event. Team Three-Letter-Words, aka the girls from Montgomery Publishing (The Salem Times Register, et al) participated in the lunchtime games. We were paired up to compete with a team from The Roanoke Times, from the advertising department, for round one, and the team named Spellacious for round two. Spellacious was an award winning team, walking away with three prize dictionaries.

Teams of two or three players came head to head, tile to tile, in two rounds of play. Three minute timers per turn, colored flags to raise for challenges and rule questions, and an air of literary fun made for the tournament experience. The high winners of the day were a team named Scrabble Rousers, averaging over 300 points per game. Three-Letter-Words’ scores were 272 and 222, with highest scoring single word – a 56 point – “jousting.” The cause though, was the main goal.

Blue Ridge Literacy is the local affiliate of ProLiteracy America, and was founded in 1985 to train and support volunteer tutors of adults in basic literacy or English as a second language. Founded by Sarah Rubush and Ruth Lipnik, two local librarians, in response to the many inquiries they received at the libraries about literacy services, they formed a Program Committee and offered the first Literacy Volunteers of America training workshop for basic literacy volunteer tutors in the Roanoke Valley.

More than 5,000 adults have received tutoring by Blue Ridge Literacy volunteers. Every year, tutors work hundreds of hours with over 400 learners throughout the area, helping with basic literacy skills, citizenship, GED training, preparation for community college admissions, employment application, job training, and much more. The most sobering fact is that 30,000 adults in our region are illiterate and cannot read or write beyond the second grade level, at best. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy estimates that 40 million adults in the United States have extremely marginal literacy skills and another 68 million have only the most basic skills. In addition, there are approximately 14 million adults who may be proficient in other languages but are non-literate in English. In 1993, 25% of adults in the city of Roanoke were considered functionally illiterate. In the city of Salem and Botetourt County, the rate was 14%, and Roanoke County, 13%. This trend is self perpetuating as a home without books, newspapers or magazines in it, with a parent to serve as a role model, will often result in children who have literacy deficiencies.

Blue Ridge Literacy is striving to make a difference. All tutoring and classroom training is free and confidential to adults in the counties of Roanoke, Botetourt, and Craig, and in the cities of Roanoke and Salem. Tutoring is offered for two hours each week and classroom instruction is provided for four hours per week. Learner goals are self-generated and have included parents wanting to help their children with schoolwork, reading bedtime stories, and reading the Bible. Others wish to be able to fill out work orders on the job and fill out employment applications. English as a Second Language learners might want to acquire a basic conversational vocabulary.

The annual Scrabble Tournament is most importantly a fundraiser to aid in those goals. Blue Ridge Literacy Executive Director Russ Merritt said, “What it really did was raise vital funding for the work done by Blue Ridge Literacy, to teach English literacy skills to adults throughout the region. Everyone played, and as much fun as they had, the real bottom line was the bottom line—we cleared around $10,000 through sponsorships and event revenues, all of which will be used for recruiting and training tutors, working with learners, providing materials and curricula, and overseeing the entire program. That’s close to one month of expenses for the organization, which makes this a very important, and successful, activity for us.”

A lot of credit goes to the volunteers of the non-profit, on a daily basis, and for this one day event, they certainly met with the challenge. The public response to the call for participation is also notable.

Merritt said, “For the two events combined (noon and evening), we had 168 players, we had 24 participating restaurants and delis and the like, we had about the best menu of food—diversity, selection, taste, range—you’re likely to find anywhere in the Valley. We also had 18 tutors making deserts, and we had 14 sponsoring organizations and businesses and individuals. We had 31 volunteers by one count.”

Master of Ceremonies
Photo Credit: Heather Brush. Russ Merritt, Master of Ceremonies, during the daytime Scrabble Tournament.

Merritt expressed results of the day with obvious joy and said, “Scrabble Rousers, representing the Roanoke Scrabble Club, won for best play and highest score(s). We had folks from all over the region—a Martinsville team, a Wytheville team, several Franklin County and Rocky Mount teams, a Lynchburg team, and teams from Salem! We had a third-grader, a crew of middle-schoolers, several folks in their 80’s and one at 92. We had teams from banks and teams from law firms and teams from engineering firms; we had parent-child teams and husband-wife teams (we assume they are still together!) and sibling teams. We had teams of friends and teams of folks who had never met before. We had at least three mothers-to-be (expecting soon) and three folks with walkers. We had a lot of tutors, and we had a number of learners playing as well. We had people who had post-graduate degrees and folks who not completed high school. The bottom line is that Scrabble is a great equalizer, and in that setting it is also a great connector of people.”

The rules were the same as for traditional play, with added fundraising opportunities such as buying a peek at a dictionary. Some fun twists were added to the competition, like making note of a team’s most creative or successful word, and the best team name. “Real Housewives of Chaparral” won that honor. The real honor though, was in participating in such a great cause.

Blue Ridge Literacy publishes collections of writings from its students. In “Writing From the Heart 2011,” the 16th collection, learner Henry Thomasson proves the value of literacy volunteers with his essay, “My Childhood.” He grew up on a farm in Bedford county, one of 13 children. He wrote, “Even though I didn’t get to learn how to read as a child, I’m thankful now that I have this opportunity to learn. I thank Literacy Volunteers because without this organization I wouldn’t be learning today.”

To learn more about Blue Ridge Literacy, to volunteer, to help provide financial support, to join the program as a learner or tutor, visit their website at, find them on Facebook at, visit them in person at 706 South Jefferson Street, Roanoke, or call them at 540-265-9339.

~ By Heather Brush

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