Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Lawyer takes aim at functional illiteracy

In Baltimore, 16 percent of adults lack basic literacy skills, according to the most recent estimate from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Shelly Abrams

For the last 21 years, Shelly Abrams has volunteered at the South Baltimore Learning Center in hopes of lowering that percentage.

Abrams began as a volunteer tutor at the center in 1991. She was a fledgling litigation attorney, two years out of the University of Maryland School of Law. SBLC was a struggling 3-year-old nonprofit, offering one-on-one tutoring with volunteers who were not professional educators.

Abrams joined the board of directors in 1992, and for the next two decades played a key role in the center’s development into an organization with the ability to offer diploma programs and literacy training to more than 1,300 students each year.

When SBLC Executive Director Sonia Socha was hired in 1993, the center was severely low on funding. Abrams was one of several board members who made personal loans to the center so it could make payroll.

“At that point our doors were about to close,” Socha said.

Abrams worked closely with Socha to write a grant request that earned the SBLC its first adult education and family literacy grant from the Maryland State Department of Education, which was around $100,000.

It’s been renewed each year and has grown in size, with the last one totaling nearly half a million dollars. But it was that first grant that “helped us make this organization stay,” Socha said. “If it weren’t for her, I’m not sure we would have gotten that grant.”

Before settling into her current role on the SBLC’s advisory council, which does fundraising and planning for SBLC events, Abrams served as treasurer, president of the board of directors and chair of the board nominating committee.

“In all those roles, [Abrams] was very much like a staff member for me; I could always count on her for help,” Socha said.

Abrams, 49, still serves on the nominating committee, which selects and trains new board members. She is also one of the center’s longest-term personal donors.

“The more I saw people appreciating what we did, and excelling and learning, that made me want to be more involved with raising money and organizing so we could reach more people,” she said.

Abrams’s day job is as senior placement director of the Baltimore office of Special Counsel, a Minneapolis-based temporary and permanent employment placement agency that specializes in legal fields.

For the last 14 years, one of Abrams’s duties has been to help plan the SBLC’s annual gala, which is its largest fundraising event. For this year’s event, which will be held Saturday at Montgomery Park Business Center, Abrams has another role: she is one of two honorees. The other is Baltimore-based law firm Venable LLP, in recognition of the volunteer hours the firm has dedicated to the SBLC over the years.

“I feel very honored,” Abrams said last week. “It’s nice to have your work recognized, although that’s not why I do it.”