“Friends…,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.” Sharing hopes and dreams is interwoven in the tutor/student relationship established at the Dominican Literacy Center in Aurora, Ill. Friendship is often the crowning grace.
Since 1993, this community-based literacy program, sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, has partnered English-speaking women with women who cannot speak, read, and/or write English. In addition to the literacy skills, job skills, and information about North American culture that tutors provide, the women give each other their stories: family joys and sorrows, life-changing successes and failures, and personal growth and challenges. When language becomes a barrier to communication, gestures, eye contact, and even silence fill in the gaps and create an atmosphere of acceptance and safety.
Elaine Getzlaff began tutoring in 1996. During her nine years volunteering at the center, she has tutored women who are eager to learn English and who need another woman’s support in a new country. Her present student, Gloria Abundis, works in the medical field. Together they put words around Gloria’s experience working with women with high-risk pregnancies. Crafting sentences and the emotions that accompany them has led them to a deeper sharing of their lives. Elaine said of Gloria, “I look forward to seeing her every week because she brightens my life.” Gloria is often heard saying, “I love my teacher; she is my friend.”
In 2000, Jinny Lamermayer heard of the program and offered her services. Jinny, who is presently with a new student, watched her two former students graduate from the program with confidence and pride. One-on-one tutoring was not enough. Jinny would often come on Thursday mornings to assist with the conversation classes. When asked why she volunteered at the center, Jinny replied, “There is such an atmosphere of love here. The students work hard and love deeply. I get more out of coming here than I give.”
Jinny has also assisted the center through her involvement with Infants, Inc. She and a few of her friends started this non-profit organization, which supplies new mothers with a bassinet filled with new baby clothes, bottles, diapers, and hand-knitted blankets. They gave more than 23 women from the center one of these bassinets during the last two years alone.
Friendships can be a way to discover new paths. After teaching with Dominican sisters for years, three retired teachers from Holy Angels Elementary School in Aurora now share their love for learning with women at the center. Carol Frieders, Dorothy Weiss, and Anne Heckel began tutoring at the center in the fall of 2004. Each of their students has children in elementary grades, so often the instruction centers around learning and care for the entire family. Carol, Dorothy, and Anne have remained within the Dominican circle of friends and have helped to broaden its borders.
This first appeared in JUST Words Vol. 5, No. 4, Fall 2005.