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Longtime literacy advocate retires from board
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Joe Hirsch, left, is presented an award by READ board member Bill Nickerson at a celebration Sept. 11 honoring his work on the READ board. - photo by Allie Dean

The name Joe Hirsch is synonymous with public service.


That is, according to everyone in Dawson County who has seen firsthand how Hirsch’s volunteerism has impacted the community.


Hirsch recently retired from work on the board of READ, or the Reading Education Association of Dawson, after seeing it through its inception in 2004 to its achievement of Dawson County being designated a Certified Literate Community just last year.


READ is a nonprofit that works to analyze literacy needs in Dawson County with the help of local businesses, churches, social services, the local school system and local government to reach, influence and support those who want to improve their education.


The group works hand in hand with the Adult Education Center, a division of Lanier Technical College, in Dawsonville to facilitate the GED program and provide assistance to those who wish to obtain their GED but lack the resources to do so.


At a retirement celebration Sept. 11, Sandy Lipkowitz, former executive director of READ, said that since she met Hirsch she has referred to him as Mr. Dawson County because of his involvement in everything.


Hirsch was instrumental in forming the organization, which was originally called the Dawson Literary Council. He was treasurer of READ from 2004 to 2010 and served as chair for several years after that.


He has also served on the boards of Legacy Link, Georgia Cares, Avita Community Partners and the Georgia Council of the Blind and is a longtime Lions Club member.


His work with READ has included supporting the nonprofit’s various initiatives, from gifting local third graders with dictionaries and eighth graders with Thesauruses to volunteering as a teacher and tutor at the adult education center, teaching English as a second language as well as some English and math.


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Joe Hirsch addresses a crowd gathered to celebrate his retirement from READ, a nonprofit that works to lower the illiteracy rate in Dawson County. - photo by Allie Dean


Lipkowitz said Hirsch is one of the most giving and benevolent people she's ever met. When her mother died in 2009  just a month after she had accepted the position as executive director, Lipkowitz said that Hirsch stepped in to help her husband man a READ booth at the Rock Creek Park 4th of July fireworks so that she could plan her mother’s funeral.

When she walked into the church where her mother’s funeral service was going to be held down in Rome, Ga., Hirsch was there.


“This new friend who was so caring and loving was there for somebody he barely knew,” Lipkowitz said. “And he’s been there for me ever since with all of the challenges of being executive director. I feel very blessed that our paths crossed.”


Sue Tennant, the first executive director of READ, also praised Hirsch’s work on the board.


“If we had a penny for everything that he’s done in terms of volunteering we wouldn’t need to have a fundraiser,” she said. “When something needs to be done in Dawson County to make Dawson County better, Joe Hirsch is going to be there.”


Hirsch said the main focus the board had since its inception was achieving the Certified Literate Community status, which took nearly a decade of work. The organization was able to reduce the illiteracy rate of Dawson residents by 50 percent within those 10 years to receive the designation, which is awarded by the Technical College System of Georgia and the Georgia Council on Adult Literacy.


Another thing he said he was proud of is the many GED classes that have graduated as a result of READ’s efforts.


“One student was 77 years old, and he’s still living in Dawson County. (It was) something he wanted to do all his life,” Hirsch said. “With the GED program people were encouraged to go on to technical school, to Lanier college...to see these people go on to better themselves, continuing education and improving themselves In this environment that we’re in, so many companies will not hire you unless you do have a high school diploma or GED.”


Lipkowitz echoed his words, and said that it takes years for some students to earn their GEDs. She said she had recently run into a former student working at a local business. Obtaining a GED had been part of her drug court requirements.


“She struggled, she passed language arts, social studies, science but she couldn’t pass math and she had taken it five or six times and she was just beside herself,” Lipkowitz said. “Before she took it that last time (a board member) came into the testing center and said a prayer with her and she passed her test. When she found out she passed it she dropped to her knees and cried. I saw that a lot.


“Those were the kind of experiences that we got to share with some of our students. She was a totally different person than when I first met her, and she said getting her GED that day, passing that math test, was the greatest day of her life.”


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Members of the READ board pose with Joe Hirsch, third from left, at a retirement celebration Sept. 11. - photo by Allie Dean

Christine Becnel, the current executive director, closed the celebration by announcing that the organization had renamed it's scholarship in honor of Hirsch.


“From here on out every student that applies in Dawson County for our scholarship will be applying for the Joe Hirsch scholarship,” Becnel said.


For more information about READ or how you can volunteer, visit www.readdawson.com or email Becnel at christine@readdawson.com.