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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Hesther Rippy, director of the Rippy Literacy Center in Lehi, watches tutor Jeff Jacobson, right, help Jacob Johnson.

LEHI — When Hesther Rippy and her husband, William, moved here from Dallas 20 years ago, she said their primary goal was to spoil their grandchildren.

And though she proudly will tell you "mission accomplished," she now acknowledges a higher purpose in the move that changed her life and is making a genuine difference in the lives of Lehi residents.

Sitting in her office in the Rippy Literacy Center, located in the Lehi Public Library, Rippy takes a moment to look out into the spacious computer lab and bask in the quiet buzz created by more than 40 students, each working with his or her own reading tutor.

"I love it when it's like this," she says. "I love seeing everything going so smoothly, seeing all these children working with their tutors."

The Rippy Literacy Center is the giant step in a journey that began in 1997, when Rippy, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was asked to be a stake literacy specialist.

"I asked where I should go to be trained," Rippy said, "and they said, 'We don't know. Just find some way to help people learn to read.' "

With that broad mandate, Rippy approached Lehi city officials to see what help they could offer.

The city's help started with a charity golf tournament hosted by Micron that netted a donation of just over $22,000 to buy books and get the center started at the city's Arts Center where an 8-foot by 9-foot office was provided. The church assignment quickly evolved into a citywide effort.

"We called it the cockpit," Rippy said of the Arts Center office. "Students had to be tutored out in the halls where people were rehearsing."

When it became obvious the Arts Center could not house the rapidly growing program, the City Council set aside 2,000 square feet in the newly remodeled library.

At the center's grand opening in November 2002, Lehi Mayor Ken Greenwood unveiled two surprises for Rippy: a photo of her and her husband (who had passed away in April of that year) and the wrought-iron sign that would identify the new center as the Rippy Literacy Center.

"It was quite a surprise," said Rippy, the emotion obvious in her voice and eyes.

Today, the Rippy Literacy Center is in its busy time of the year. Summer tutoring programs in reading and math serve 730 students, and that number is still growing. Students attend two 50-minute classes each week, working one-on-one with a tutor or in small groups.

In the main room, students receive help with reading from one-on-one tutoring and reading programs on the center's 41 flat screen computers, paid for by a $28,000 donation from an anonymous couple.

Chris Davis, a 14-year-old student at Lehi Junior High School, evaluates new students with an advanced computer program that measures their reading and determines the specific areas and concepts with which they need help.

"I used to not read very good," Davis says. "I used to go to special classes, and now I just want to help others."

Davis is the poster child for what keeps the center running — former students of the program who return as tutors. Any student who is at least two grades ahead of the student who needs help can be a tutor, a practice that results in a fascinating scene of children helping other children in a process that provides a mutual confidence builder.

"It's so satisfying to see the children make progression and then come back as tutors, knowing they are being helped in a way that will help them and their children," Rippy said.

Outside the computer room, a foyer with study carrels crammed into every inch connects to two smaller rooms used for math tutoring. Space is a precious commodity at the Rippy Literacy Center, so every inch is made to count.

In a hall behind the reading center, two younger students sit on pillows and listen while a tutor helps them with basic math skills.

"This is a fire escape, so we can't put any furniture in here," Rippy says. "But these students have been very good about working with us."

Rippy said the city is looking at options for giving the center more room, but she adds she is satisfied with the current arrangement and is doing fine with the space she has.

Back in her office, Rippy says she is surprised by the center's success but quickly adds, "I think we've just started."

Rippy firmly believes there has been a divine hand guiding her work but said the human hands are making a major contribution as well.

"God is so good," she says. "The city runs a very close second."

Of course, the center still has its problems. Funding is tight, a problem Rippy hopes to solve by establishing a permanent endowment.

And while the $40,000 she has saved for it is far short of her million-dollar goal, if history is any indication, Hester Rippy has a habit of making things happen.

E-mail: [email protected]