Brad Nettles // The Post and Courier

Eileen Chepenik, executive director of the Trident Literacy Association, savors a rare moment of repose at home.

The ghost of a smile plays across Eileen Chepenik's lips.

Asked her thoughts on next year's 40th anniversary of the Trident Literacy Association, of which she is executive director, she replies succinctly, and only half in jest.

"I would say that my goal is for us to go out of business," she says.

"It would mean we were no longer needed, that the problem of illiteracy no longer existed. But I am happy to be there to celebrate this milestone of 40 years. Trident Literacy was founded in 1972 by just a couple of people who recognized the problem. Their office was a shoebox of index cards on which were written the names of volunteers. Carol Ward, the director then, had a drawer for an office.

"But we have made so much progress over the years, and made such a difference in people's lives."

Born in Jacksonville, Fla., Chepenik earned a B.S. in journalism at the University of Florida. Chepenik moved on from newspapering, but has found no end of noble callings, in both professional and volunteer capacities. For her, serving the community is a way of life.

"It is what I am," says the West Ashley resident. "I cannot imagine not going to work every day at the TLA, seeing what goes on there and working with such wonderful people. If I was not working there, I would be volunteering somewhere else."

Chepenik ventured to Boston after college, where she reconnected with her spouse-to-be, Stanley, a Navy officer who also was from Jacksonville. Together, they may represent the first couple in history to live in Charleston five separate times in five different homes. The Chepeniks, who have two grown daughters, moved 14 times in the first 20 years of their marriage before anchoring here for good in 1992.

The natural

One might assume that getting involved in the community, seeking solutions and making a difference were ideals taught at a young age. Not so, says Chepenik.

"It's just a thing that I have always been drawn to. My parents were divorced when I was young and my father was really not part of my life. But I was always involved in Jewish youth groups that did good things."

Chepenik continues to do good things. Apart from her full-time job with the TLA, she also serves on the board of the Charleston Jewish Federation, chairs the Jewish Community Relations Committee, works with the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust and is immediate past president of the Rotary Club of North Charleston.

Previously, she worked for the Jewish Community Center and was assistant director of the Charleston Jewish Federation (1992-97), where her responsibilities included working with the Jewish Community Relations Committee, fundraising and editing the then-Charleston Jewish Journal.

For 13 years she has produced the special Holocaust Supplement for The Post and Courier, and this past summer participated in an intensive two-week Holocaust study tour in Eastern Europe.

After her stint at the Jewish Federation, Chepenik began work in the area of race relations. As a volunteer, she co-founded Operation Understanding-Charleston, a five-year leadership program for black and Jewish teens. She also developed Mastering the Human Connection, a dialogue program for businesses and public and private schools.

"One thing I learned was that you cannot solve the problem of bigotry in a day. You can have your two-day seminar on diversity, but then you have 364 days of bigotry. You have to bring people back to the table over time."

But how does she find the time?

"You know, I don't. There's so much that needs to be done and I want to do it all, but I've taken on a bit too much right now, especially with my daughter's wedding coming up. I now recognize that there is limited time, and I am learning to say 'no.' "

War on illiteracy

Set to reopen a Summerville site in January, the Trident Literacy Association mission remains one of "increasing literacy in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties by offering instruction using a self-paced, individualized curriculum in reading, writing, mathematics, English as a Second Language, GED preparation and basic computer use."

"We have more than doubled our budget and added lots of new programs," says Chepenik, who took the helm of the TLA nine years ago after a stint as project coordinator for the Greater Charleston Naval Base Memorial. "This is an important organization, and there is still much room for growth."

Today, the TLA maintains seven main study sites and some 20 outreach locations with almost 300 volunteer tutors working with 2,000 students. Students are ages 17 and up, with the majority between 21 and 45.

Chepenik says an estimated 60,000 adults living in the tri-county area do not have a high school diploma or GED, and 20,000 more have less than a ninth-grade education, based on figures from www.census.gov.

The average cost to taxpayers is $292,000 over the working life of each high school dropout in terms of lost earnings and lower taxes paid and higher spending for social costs, including incarceration, health care and welfare.

"In Charleston County, an estimated 80 percent of the inmates are illiterate," Chepenik says.

Which is why volunteer service is so critical.

"In the last fiscal year, we had 247 volunteers who put in more than 22,000 hours. The value of that is over $450,000. It's just wonderful the volunteer tutors who come. There are a lot of retired teachers and businesspeople, people with time on their hands who want to do something good in the world. We are lucky that they choose us."

Chepenik says she manages by empowerment.

"I'm identified by my work and the issues that are important to me. I recognize that I don't have all the answers or even all the questions. I have a very dedicated staff of 21, most of whom have been with the TLA much longer than me. They want to make a difference in people's lives, and this takes a special kind of personality, because we don't pay very well.

"They inspire me every day during staff meetings when they talk about what is going on at their sites or with their students. And I just feel like I can't let them down. It's very rewarding."