News & Blog

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Written by Claira Freeman, AmeriCorps Volunteer Coordinator

Rylie Eastley is a constant presence at the Literacy Center of West Michigan's Family Activity Nights. These monthly events at Riley with kidsthe child’s school engage the entire family in learning literacy skills together. Once a month for more than a year, Rylie has helped to facilitate literacy activities at these events. More importantly, she has helped to build community with our learners and their families.

In addition to being engaged and present, Rylie is a joyful volunteer. She says that she loves being able to invest her time in a community that has invested so much in her. She has been a part of the Family Literacy Program almost as long as I have, making her dedication to our events even more special to me.

From the beginning, Lee Ann Soodsma went all-in on tutoring with the Literacy Center. She began tutoring three years ago and has taken on not one, but two learners. Lee Ann tutors both Marvin, a father of five, and Audelina, a native Spanish speaker with children.

Lee Ann Soodsma“Tutoring sessions with Lee Ann go far beyond workbooks,” writes Literacy Coordinator Tom Rodgers. As an example, Lee Ann took Marvin to get his library card within the first few sessions of tutoring. She then reported that he brought his whole family to the library again just three days later to visit and check out materials. Several times, she has taken Marvin and his children on field trips around the Greater Grand Rapids area using the Check-It-Out program through the Grand Rapids Public Library. She even reports using a stop for ice cream as a reward for speaking English the entire field trip. Always the advocate, Lee Ann also accompanied Marvin on job interviews, and other important appointments.

In her work with Audelina, Lee Ann has focused on opportunities for her to practice English. Lee Ann encourages Audelina to read with her children, attend local events where she can practice English, and sign up for Spanish classes to improve her reading. In only six months, Audelina’s reading scores increased by two levels and she reports more confidence in identifying words.

Lee Ann often gets asked about her tutoring experience. She shares stories of her learners with pride, and is quick to be an advocate for tutoring. As Tom writes, “she is an integral part to the work that we do and has left an indelible mark on her learners’ lives.”

Rick and Loy Adamy have never been ones to seek attention. Rick, founder and CEO of Adamy Valuation Advisors, and Loy, Rick Spellebration 2013an elementary school teacher, have instead worked quietly and steadfastly on issues that matter to them, including literacy. 

Knowing this, Jean Dugan recruited Rick to join the Literacy Center Board of Directors in 2008. She remembers, “I knew Rick for many years and was well aware of his strong leadership skills and his deep passion for this community. Recruiting him to the board at the Literacy Center made perfect sense. He was a wonderful addition.”

When Rick was elected president of the board in November 2012, it quickly became clear that his two-year term would be anything but routine. In 2013, founding director of the Literacy Center, Susan Ledy, announced her retirement and a search began for her successor. During the transition, Rick took it upon himself to shoulder the responsibility of the organization, safeguarding the mission for the next chapter. Laurie Z. Emelander, Finance Director, remembers: “It was a very stressful time for all of us. Rick’s trust in the staff and his guidance during that time was invaluable.”

Adamys at PicnicNot only did Loy share Rick with the Literacy Center during that demanding time, she got involved herself. Loy began tutoring Kamala, a mother of three from Sudan. Kamala and Loy spends 2 hours a week together, working on Kamala’s reading and listening skills. It’s even become a family affair with Rick and Loy both engaging with Kamala and her children.

Rick and Loy will be receiving our Meijer Champion of Literacy Award at our 24th annual Spellebration event. Join on May 11 as we recognize these important contributors to our mission. Tickets are available at www.literacycenterwm.org/spellebration

 Spend an hour listening to Denise Joseph tell stories of teaching and volunteering and you’ll know right away why the Literacy Center is honoring her with the Marshall Pitler Volunteer of the Year Award at this year’s Spellebration event.

Denise and Jung Kun

A special education teacher in Comstock Park for more than 30 years, Denise was already a seasoned teacher when she started tutoring at the Literacy Center 10 years ago. Since that time, she’s tutored seven learners from all over the world. Denise is currently tutoring Jung Kun, a young mother from Korea whose husband attends Calvin Seminary. The two have a close relationship, although Denise is the first to point out that she's probably learning more from Jung Kun than the other way around. 

Norma Diaz Jeff Rees consent givenThis month, Jeff Rees and Norma Lopez will be celebrating their fourth year of partnering together on literacy. Norma, a native of Mexico, came to the Literacy Center in April 2013 to improve her English reading and speaking skills. Since that time, Jeff and Norma have made it through book four in the Harry Potter series and are now working together to help Norma study for her GED. Lately, their weekly tutoring sessions are almost entirely focused on GED preparation. They recently celebrated Norma passing the Social Studies portion of the test. Kate Law, their Literacy Coordinator, writes, “Jeff really understands that reading should be fun and engaging in order for learning to take place.”

In a unique turn of events, Jeff and Norma are now coworkers. Jeff helped Norma apply for and get a job at his company, Ranir. Jeff works as senior manufacturing engineer and Norma as an assembly line worker, which allows them to draw on this shared experience during tutoring sessions. As Kate says, “it is obvious when speaking with the two of them that they will be friends for life.”

Christina Arnold's Sense of Place

Christina Arnold, recipient of this year's Award for Community Engagement at our annual Spellebration event, has a profoud sense of place. Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Christina is the granddaughter of Daniel Christina and Mayor BlissVargas, a Mexican immigrant and one of the first Latino leaders in the community. As she tells the story, her grandfather would welcome anyone into his Grand Rapids home, providing translation services and support to his neighbors.

Formed in part by her grandfather’s passion for the Latino community in Grand Rapids, Christina spent her career at Grand Rapids Community College, helping others access educational opportunities. She was a student, then a secretary, and then an administrator. She is perhaps best known for the role she helped create at GRCC: Director of the Bob and Aleicia Woodrick Center for Equity and Inclusion.

Tutoring is a Family Affair for Champion of Literacy Recipient Loy Adamy

Loy Adamy is no stranger to the Literacy Center. For years, she has attended Literacy Center events with her husband, Rick, Loy and Kamalawho served on the Literacy Center Board of Directors. Just over a year ago, she decided to engage more deeply with the organization as a volunteer tutor. Loy has been working with her learner, Kamala, since that time.

Kamala, a 43 year old mother from the Sudan, has increased in both her reading and listening skills since working with Loy. She’s also increased involvement with her children’s schools, and secured permanent employment with a better salary and benefits. Kamala credits Loy’s assistance and encouragement with her ability to reach these goals, along with her increased self-confidence. 

Family Literacy Celebration on March 21 Engages GRPS Parents in Literacy 

The Literacy Center of West Michigan is hosting its first annual Family Literacy Celebration on Tuesday, March 21 from 5:30 pm- 7:00 pm at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Dickinson Elementary School located at 448 Dickinson Street SE in Grand Rapids.

As part of the Community Literacy Initiative at the Literacy Center, this event will support families from Dickinson and Brookside elementary by providing activities designed to promote literacy at home. Families will have an opportunity to receive culturally relevant books matched to children's reading level, in addition to door prizes and dinner. Presentations will be in English, Spanish, and Kinyarwanda. Families will also have the opportunity to connect with Grand Rapids Public Library, Schools of Hope, and Great Start Collaborative.

Mike Nassar, director of the Community Literacy Initiative remarks, "As a former GRPS principal, I understand how strengthening parent engagement will have a direct impact on student achievement. I am excited about the Literacy Celebration providing a key support for schools and families to ensure all children read at grade level."

Brad Hieftje is an AmeriCorps Family Literacy Tutor in our Adult Tutoring Program. He reviewed the Activist Series for use in tutoring sessions. 

Through my AmeriCorps service at the Literacy Center, I tutor incredible learners from all over the world. We practice several different English skills on a weekly basis, while also working towards accomplishing their short and long term goals. Staying true to the Literacy Center’s mission of seeking social justice through the power of literacy, I try to choose texts that emphasize diverse voices. The Literacy Center has many great resources for this in their library, including the Activist Series from the Grass Roots Press.

Kiri DeYoung is an AmeriCorps member with the Literacy Center of West Michigan. Kiri DeYoung

I am completely honored to be serving as an AmeriCorps ESL Instructor with the Family Literacy program at the Literacy Center of West Michigan. Each week, I present new words, sentences and activities to groups of hard working parents with children in the Grand Rapids Public School system so they can practice a little bit more English.

Learning a new language is tough work that requires an inspirational amount of vulnerability. It takes courage and a never-give-up kind of determination. To learn requires trust and empowerment. To learn requires comfortable and even ground.

Chad Patton, Director of our Customized Workplace English program, spoke with Zina about her story. 

Zina speaks four languages, is raising two boys with her husband, and has a goal of becoming a nurse “so I can help people [and] help my family.” She also happens to be an Iraqi refugee who immigrated to the United States by way of Sweden.Zina copy

Like many other immigrants, Zina learned how to speak and understand English through watching television. I first met Zina when she came to the Literacy Center to further advance her literacy skills. She enrolled in our advanced English language classes and quickly “graduated” by reaching above a 9th grade reading level.

Katherine Payne, a Literacy Coordinator with the Adult Tutoring Program, submitted this profile of Ahmed and his tutor, Rachael.

Ahmed has been working with his tutor, Rachael, for more than one year. Ahmed, a Sudanese refugee, is incredibly devoted to improving his English skills. Since working with his tutor, he has also enrolled in English classes through the Literacy Center’s Customized Workplace English program.

Ahmed works for a local manufacturing plant that is in the process of laying off all employees at his plant due to advancement in robotic technologies. With the threat of being laid off constantly in the back of his mind, Ahmed pushes himself to constantly improve his understanding of English so that he has the skills to find his own future employment.

Guest Blogger: Preston Wyckoff, AmeriCorps English Language Instructor with the Family Literacy Program

Once a month at the Literacy Center, the English language instructors put on an event for the benefit of their learners and their families. These Family Activity Nights, or FANs, provide an opportunity for students of all levels, from absolute beginners to more advanced speakers of English, to practice their English skills in a more natural, social setting. Each event is made up of a group dinner and a subsequent activity designed to get both the adult learners to bond with their children and fellow learners while using English language skills.

At the first of these events held this year, I was encouraged to see that the majority of my learners had shown up with their children, their spouses, and other family members, and for the most part were enjoying themselves and chatting amongst one another. The activity for the October FAN was to create and illustrate a book featuring sentences about the values associated with the celebration of Thanksgiving.

The Literacy Center of West Michigan is honored to receive donations in memory of Linda Alkire who passed away earlier this month. Linda was a tutor at the Literacy Center and her family is asking that memorial donations be directed to the Literacy Center. Valerie Emmenecker, Director of the Adult Tutoring Program, shares her memories of working with Linda and her learner, Seida:

“Linda Alkire joined the Adult Tutoring Program in April 2012. She worked with a woman named Seida Perviz. Within a few weeks, Seida and Linda formed a close personal relationship. Linda did an exercise with Seida where she asked about Seida’s immigration story. Seida experienced serious political trauma in her home country of Bosnia and Linda provided a sympathetic ear. While they were working together, Linda helped Seida get her first job in the U.S.

Quatina and her tutor Tara

Hi, my name is Quatina Michael. I have three kids, and their names are Damion, Alexis and Dae’Qwan. They go to Kentwood Public Schools. Damion is in the 12th grade, Alexis is in the 9th grade, and Dae’Qwan is in the 8th grade.

Dae’Qwan got a job this past summer raking grass. I am so proud of him, it’s his first job and he is so happy too. The kids stay with their grandma, but they come over almost every day in the summer to see us and we spend time with them going swimming, going to the movies together, just staying home watching a movie on TV, or having a picnic at the park. Over the summer they started to meet some of their cousins and an uncle they have never met before. My youngest son asked a lot of different questions about his family he never met before.

 On Monday, December 5, the Literacy Center of West Michigan received a grant from the Michigan Office of New Americans to (MONA) to create a construction career pathway, including ESL instruction, for refugees in West Michigan. One of only five recipients statewide, the Literacy Center will be partnering on the project with West Michigan Works!, Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. West Michigan Chapter (ABCWM), and Grand Rapids Community College’s (GRCC) Workforce Training.

Through this partnership, West Michigan Works! will recruit refugees who are interested in learning English for the construction sector. The learners will begin with 10 weeks of ESL instruction from the Literacy Center in preparation for ABCWM’s 13-week Construction Core class.

Learners are expected to graduate from the 23-week course with an OSHA 10-hour certification, a National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) Core Construction certification, and a rough terrain forklift license.

Mario Vinson has lived his entire life in Grand Rapids. It wasn’t until his case manager at Heartside Ministry suggested taking English lessons, that he discovered the Literacy Center of West Michigan.

“I wanted to find a way to get my GED.” he said.

Mario lives with a learning disability and has made great progress with the help of a tutor. Since enrolling the Adult Tutoring Program in 2015 Mario has increased his reading level from the fifth-grade to the seventh-grade.

“My favorite part has been reading Robin Hood,” he said. “I had never read that before coming here.”

Mario says that the Literacy Center provides a nice and quiet environment for him to study. He likes the staff and enjoys how his coordinator keeps him updated about his progress.

“Adverbs are the hardest,” he says about learning, “but, I am having fun.”

Mario is working with his tutor on the Reading, Social Studies, Science, and Math portions of the GED. He hopes to take the test and continue making progress.

Nineteen years ago, Ludi Trevino moved to the United States from Mexico and married her current husband, Joel. Joel and Ludi live in Grand Rapids with their three children, Andrea (17), Elias (13), and Isaac (7).

Ludi first heard about the Literacy Center through North Godwin Elementary, where her son, Isaac, attends school. Although she had enrolled in English classes when she first arrived in the US, she felt that she needed more practice. Ludi’s goal was to help all of her kids with their homework and be able to speak English with them, so one of Isaac’s teachers suggested contacting the Literacy Center.

“I was also worried about my teenage daughter,” she said. “This is the time girls get boyfriends! I wanted to know what her and her friends were talking about in English,” she said. “I wanted to be—what’s the word?—alert!”
Staying connected to the Spanish language while learning English is important to Ludi, especially for her children. At home, she and her family speak almost entirely Spanish, with the exception of watching English movies or television shows with Spanish subtitles.

Ludi has been meeting with tutors for four years improving her writing, pronunciation, and grammar. As she continues to learn more and more English, and as her kids grow up, she hopes to secure a job by using her well-practiced English skills.

Paloma Deerfield just completed her service as an AmeriCorps Family Literacy Instructor at Buchanan and Cesar Chavez elementary schools. Paloma began her service later than many of her fellow members, but writes that “the classroom community that my learners and I created in the few months that we learned together was a unique experience that I hold dear.” After AmeriCorps, Paloma will continue to work at her “dream job” at Midnight Vault comic book store in downtown Grand Rapids.

Time is such a relative, nearly inapplicable measurement of the strength of bonds formed by individuals. In the four short months that my learners and I spent together, learning from one another, a strong bond and a great sense of community formed.

A family growing together through literacy

For Ardany de Leon and Mirna Lopez, nothing is more important than empowering themselves and their three children through literacy and learning. Ardany, Mirna, Ardany Jr., Diego, and Camila regularly volunteer at Kroc Center church events, they work out together through the FitKids On the Run program, and they participate in the Literacy Center’s Family Literacy Program. Ardany and Mirna are changing their own lives and those of their children by all the effort they have put into their tutoring and by becoming increasingly involved in the community.

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