A friend encouraged Shelly Abrams to volunteer at the South Baltimore Learning Center. Now, more than 21 years later, she still donates many hours a week to the nonprofit, which offers literacy and life-skills training to more than 1,000 adults each year.
"I lived in the neighborhood then and thought, 'Why not?'" she said. "I took the training course, started tutoring and quickly became involved. I never really left."
A lifelong Baltimore resident, she grew up in a family of educators. Although she chose a career in law, the desire to teach, especially when it comes to the neediest, has remained with her. At the center, she found opportunities to indulge her talent for teaching.
"The need for adult literacy is great, and there is more demand for tutors than are available," she said. "There is a high dropout rate for all kinds of reasons, and there are so many who want to come back to school but can't. The center is a way to come back and get a GED."
Abrams, 49, started as a tutor in the early days of the center, which was established in the South Baltimore neighborhood more than two decades ago and now has its headquarters on Ostend Street. She quickly added classroom duties, too. Then, when the center needed a grant-writer, Abrams lent a hand. SBLC was the only community-based organization to receive a state education grant in 1994.
"I had no idea how to write a grant," she said. "I just wrote what I knew about our program, along with statistics about our students and teachers. We were successful the first time around and have continued to succeed."
Sonia Socha, SBLC executive director, said nearly 100 volunteers, many of them longtimers like Abrams, are the mainstay of the center.
"Most of our volunteers are rooted in the surrounding community," Socha said. "They have matured along with us, extended our network and stayed engaged with us. They are sensitive to what is needed here."
Abrams has served on the board of directors, including stints as treasurer and president, and remains a member of the advisory board.
"Shelly has literally done everything and is forever giving," said Socha. "She is hands-on and gets what volunteering and leadership can mean to a nonprofit. ... Volunteers like Shelly are why we have survived and thrived."
Fundraising emerged as another of Abrams' strengths. She has helped organize SBLC's annual gala since its inception in 2000 and has put together this year's 21st anniversary celebration, at which she will be honored.
"It is a lot of work organizing a celebration for 400," Abrams said. "It's volunteer-intensive, and there's a lot of asking involved."
Thanks to her efforts, about 90 percent of the food for the event this Saturday evening at the Montgomery Park Business Center has been donated. Contributors have also given all the items for the live and silent auctions. The gala, the center's largest fundraiser, is expected to raise about $80,000 to support educational services.
Abrams is the executive director of Special Counsel, a legal staffing company, but she said South Baltimore and the learning center are never far from her thoughts. She sees herself volunteering for many more years.
"The center has a special place in my heart," she said.