Helping Works

Much-loved Learning Lab marks 25 years of promoting adult literacy in Treasure Valley

Learning Lab volunteer Loreen Todd helps new Boise residents and Bhutanese refugees Anjal and his mother, Sanchu. Sanchu is learning to coach Anjal as he learns the English alphabet. The Learning Lab brings classes to their Boise apartment complex, targeting residents who might otherwise lack access to Learning Lab’s services.
Learning Lab volunteer Loreen Todd helps new Boise residents and Bhutanese refugees Anjal and his mother, Sanchu. Sanchu is learning to coach Anjal as he learns the English alphabet. The Learning Lab brings classes to their Boise apartment complex, targeting residents who might otherwise lack access to Learning Lab’s services.

Learning Lab, a nonprofit learning and literacy center in the Treasure Valley, started with grassroots. Back in 1991, members of the Boise Junior League were thinking ahead to the new millennium, concerned about the changing nature of the workplace and the growing necessity for educated workers as jobs that didn’t require degrees and diplomas were becoming obsolete.

The Junior League founded the Learning Lab in a room at Boise Public Library. At that time, said current executive director Ann Heilman, the organization had one paid employee, four students and four volunteers. The community’s response to the literacy program, characterized by small classes and devoted volunteers, was immediate and positive, said Heilman.

“That suggested we’ve hit the sweet spot because here we are today, 25 years later,” Heilman said.

One sign of success and its role in the heart of the community? The upcoming annual fundraiser Lunch for Literacy on Feb. 3 is all but sold out with 1,000 ticket sales a month before the event.

“This is a lovely problem to have,” Heilman said.

A quarter century after it opened its doors, the Learning Lab has a bright, airy home in Garden City (308 E. 36th St.). It offers a variety of classes, including English language learning, GED prep, family literacy and more. It serves close to 400 students of all ages, has a full staff and more than 150 volunteer tutors. Many of the Learning Lab’s volunteers have stayed with the organization for more than a decade, some since its earliest years.

This is Nancy Christensen’s 16th year as a volunteer.

“It’s my weekly dose of inspiration,” she said. Christensen teaches in the family literacy program, where adults hone their academic skills while their children attend a preschool program onsite in Garden City.

The volunteers, Christensen said, are often working with students who are in crisis and struggling, whether they’re new immigrants or immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years and are just now learning English or native-born residents whose schooling was interrupted. Christensen said she’s always moved by her students’ hard work and humility. Her students have included refugees like a Ukrainian dentist who was working as a housekeeper and an Afghani chemistry teacher who was stocking shelves at Walmart.

“Both were starting all over, starting at the bottom,” Christensen said.

Volunteering at the Learning Lab has been a connection to the larger world, she said.

“Instead of shaking your head when you watch the news or hiding your head in the sand, you can take a few hours out of your week and go do something.”

Meeting students where they live

The Learning Lab has grown, said Heilman, to respond to the community’s growing need for literacy classes. Those might be classes for adults who dropped out of high school and have realized they can’t provide for their families without literacy skills, or adults who have professional aspirations, going to nursing school, for example. Learning Lab now offers a night class for GED prep to better reach people who have other responsibilities during the day. Something Heilman is proud of: When someone calls to inquire about GED classes, Learning Lab staffers try to get them in for an appointment the next day.

“Because it takes a lot of courage for someone to make that call,” Heilman said.

Heilman and her staff also know that transportation is a challenge for low-income people. A partnership with Boise Public Library has increased the Learning Lab’s outreach through classes at the main library and neighborhood branches as well as the Garden City Library.

Learning Lab developed a new program in 2016 called “Reach Out.”

“We know there are some very bright but isolated people who live in low-income apartments in Boise. They may have limited transportation or may be refugees or immigrants with limited language skills,” said Heilman.

So the Learning Lab has been coming to the people. Lab staff recently finished an outreach program at the Northwest Pointe Apartments on North Five Mile Road in Boise. Staff packed up materials and hosted barbecues and other social events at the complex to build comfort and trust with residents. Staffers then set up literacy classes onsite in the community room next to the laundry room.

“It was OK,” said Heilman, “until the washers hit the spin cycle.”

At the end of the outreach and onsite program, staffers brought students, now no longer strangers to the Learning Lab, to Garden City to see the building and learn about other offerings there. Four families have signed up to continue their literacy classes. Thanks to the support of the community, Learning Lab has been able to provide transportation for people from their apartments to Garden City, even if that means paying cab fare.

Learning Lab has also built partnerships. Another literacy session takes place at Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue. Most of the students are Muslim refugees. Most of the volunteers are LDS, helping students learn English.

To volunteer ...

Learning Lab welcomes donations as well as volunteers interested in tutoring or filling in for tutors. The organization also has ongoing need for volunteers with repair and landscaping skills as well as office skills. Contact the organization online at or call 850-6040.

Learn about the Boise Depot

Local train expert Eriks Garsvo will give free tours of the iconic Boise Depot at noon and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 8.

The tour will highlight the building’s history and take guests through the progression of local rail service, from the railroad’s arrival in Boise and construction of the Depot in the 1920s to its years of operation and renovation. See the building inside and out, and learn how restoration efforts in the 1990s preserved the building and kept its original features intact. The tour ends with a trip up in 96-foot bell tower.

Operated by Boise Parks and Recreation, the Boise Depot is located at 2603 W. Eastover Terrace. The Depot is open for free public drop-in from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays and Mondays.

Space is limited for the popular tours, so register today at (

Idaho Humanities Council invites grant applications

The Idaho Humanities Council invites proposals for Mini and Major grants and Teacher Incentive Grants from organizations and individuals for consideration at the IHC’s next grant round. The deadline for grant proposals is Jan. 15. If you’re thinking of applying, IHC strongly encourages you to review the guidelines and contact IHC staff to discuss project ideas before writing your proposal.

Mini grants (under $2,000) and Major Grants (over $2,000) over the years have supported museum and library exhibits, oral history projects, heritage tourism projects, special lectures, the preservation of historical photo archives, Chautauqua programs, community-wide reading programs, humanities-focused conferences and a variety of projects and programs that inspire community dialogue in the humanities. In addition to other topics, the IHC this year has a special interest in seeing proposals that offer the opportunity for public dialogue on issues of race and ethnicity.

Teacher Incentive Grants, limited to $1,000, are awarded to K-12 teachers to enhance their teaching of the humanities in the classroom.

Grant guidelines and the online application are available on the IHC website at