Enjoy this story from the Summer 2002 issue of JUST Words, when our literacy centers were young, then read more about where the Aurora Dominican Literacy Center is today!
For Margarita Barajas, mastering English means everything. “I need to learn English to help my daughters with homework," says this wife, mother of four, and metal factory worker. “For my job I need more English.”
Barajas’ situation and her reasons for wanting to learn English are remarkably similar to other students’. “I want to do better,” Maria Carrillo says. “I have two small children. I want to help them when they grow. I want to find a better job, do better for my family.”
In September 1993, in response to a rapidly escalating illiteracy rate and a growing population of non-English speaking residents in Aurora, Ill., the Dominican Literacy Center began offering literacy instruction to women. The goal of the project was, and still is, to offer individual instruction in reading, writing, and speaking English to all women, regardless of race, religion, or background. The program began with one tutor and two students. At present there are 117 students and 99 volunteer tutors.
Safe & Secure
The program has three full-time staff members: a director, an assistant director of curriculum, and an assistant director of volunteer training. Trained volunteers who receive 16 hours of initial instruction and ongoing in-service training do the tutoring. The center, located in the students' neighborhood, provides a safe, secure place for both learners and tutors to work with and learn from each other.
“Not all these women had education in their native country,” Sister Kathleen Ryan, the center’s director says. “For some this is their first experience of school ever. Others went to school but know little English. When I first started this work, a person could get a job without English. Now the main employers and agencies are saying, no English, no work.”
“It was important for this sick man
that I speak English.”
—Maria, Dominican Literacy Center Student
The center is a ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Ill., who provided a start-up grant for books and materials. Volunteers and staff help break the cycle of illiteracy by assisting women unskilled in the English language to become literate. The weekly, 90-minute tutoring sessions provide intensive one-to-one training. Additional informal conversation groups give students opportunities to use their English skills in a practical setting. Volunteer tutor Judy Lutz says, “Right now, there are over 100 students waiting to get into the program, and we don’t have enough teachers.”
Doubling Our Impact
A second Dominican Literacy Center opened in 1996 in Chicago, Ill. [This center relocated to Melrose Park, Ill., in 2008.] The pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Rev. Thomas Tivy, offered the rent-free use of a parish building. Sister Judith Curran, who had much experience ministering in the Aurora literacy center, is the founding director of the Chicago center. The center in Aurora provided funding for the initial year, after which grants made this second center independent. The program began with ten students tutored by Sister Judith and Sister Patricia Stark. Now 32 tutors serve 80 students. Ninety-five percent of the students are Hispanic and 5% are Polish.
Confidence, and its Consequences
The most obvious effect of the Dominican Literacy Center on the lives of the students is the confidence they gain and its amazing consequences.
One student, Maria, was waiting inside a bakery when an elderly man collapsed. Maria went to a phone, called 911, and requested an ambulance. As instructed by the dispatcher, Maria waited with the stricken man until the ambulance arrived. The man had suffered a heart attack and was taken to the nearest hospital. Maria ended her account of the emergency by simply stating: “It was important for this sick man that I speak English.”
As Magdalena waited to pay for groceries, she saw a driver in a van scratch her car, which was parked in the store lot. Running out, Magdalena shouted for the driver to stop. When the driver didn’t, Magdalena jumped into her car and followed until both cars stopped at a red light. Magdalena convinced the driver to pull over. When the other driver said “I can’t speak English. My husband kill me!” Magdalena’s replied “I don’t speak good English, and my husband will kill me if I don’t take care of the accident!”
After the necessary information was exchanged, Magdalena proceeded to the police station to report the accident. Her accented plea of “I don’t speak good English, but I can explain to you what happened,” was kindly met with “You explain and I write, okay?” After Magdalena’s account of this adventure, her pride and delight were evident. “I speak English when it’s important and they understand me!” she said. “Oh, my gosh!”
Finding Their Voices
Several students from the centers have felt confident enough to volunteer as teacher aides or librarians at their children’s schools. One of the tutors says, “Learning English gives the students self-confidence. Many do not need English to stay at their jobs because they are surrounded by Spanish-speakers. However, they need English if they are to move up a step. Those students who find themselves in advocacy roles (i.e. fighting for necessary assistance for physically and/or mentally challenged children) are speaking more forcefully now that they have found their voice.
Having learned to deal with language problems and cultural differences, these students of the Dominican Literacy Centers manifest a quiet inner strength, beauty and determination. “These qualities are what we, the tutors, are blessed to experience as we share knowledge, skills, respect and friendship with them,” says Sister Judith.
Want to Join Us?
The Dominican Literacy Centers in Aurora and Melrose Park, Ill., are two of our many nonstop missions in the service of God's people.
Read about the Aurora literacy center's 25th anniversary celebration, then join us by making a gift today that will:
- Keep our sisters healthy for mission
- Make necessary repairs to convents we own
- Provide safety and independence for our senior sisters at Sacred Heart Convent