News & Blog: Advocate Spotlights

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My Learning Story

By: Erica Gonzalez, Learner

Erica Gonzalez and Laurie Emelander w release

My name is Erica Gonzalez and I am forty two years old. I have two daughters. Samantha she is 7 and Camila is 4. When we arrived in this country I did not speak English, and I came to the Literacy Center for help.

Then my history began. Tom the coordinator called me in April to tell me that I had a tutor. I never imagined I could have grown so much in two years.

I visited the Library each week to meet Laurie Emelander my tutor. She is the best person that I had found in my life!

She has been the most patient, comprehensive, encouraging. She always had a positive disposition, and we taught each other about our different cultures. There are no words for how grateful I am to Laurie. Thank you for being a part of my life.

 

My Tutoring Story

By: Laurie Zarzecki Emelander, Tutor

I began working as the Accounting Clerk/Clerical Assistant at the Literacy Center of West Michigan (at that time, the Kent County Literacy Council) in January of 1994. A lot has changed since then. Our organization has grown in every way –budget, space, programs, numbers of individuals served. I am now the Finance Director. Two things have remained the same– our purpose, and the fact that our learners have always achieved great things.

When Wendy Falb became Executive Director in 2014, she encouraged and supported staff members to participate in our mission and become a tutor. I accepted the challenge and completed tutor training in April 2015. I got my first learner, Erica, in May of 2015. Tutoring quickly became the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my week.

Erica is one of the hardest working people I know! She has a continuous thirst for more and more knowledge. I prepared lessons and worked with Erica once a week. Erica did a lot of extra work on her own, constantly challenging herself to speak more English at work, in her daughters’ schools, at the doctor’s office, and many other places. She said at times it was difficult for her but she worked hard and learned more. It was wonderful to hear about each of her new accomplishments. We shared so much more than just English lessons! We shared our culture, holiday traditions, family stories and life experiences.

When Erica and I first met, she asked me if I spoke Spanish; her reaction when I said I did not was “oh, No!” At some point in the middle of our 22 months together I remember her saying, “I’m not afraid to speak English anymore!” And now she has graduated from our program!

I wish Erica all the best in her future and continued studies. She has achieved so much! I hope all of her dreams come true.

I will be helping another learner soon. And I strongly encourage everyone out there to become a volunteer tutor, help someone, and be open to a truly rewarding experience.

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.”

 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.”

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. 

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.

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.

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.

Mr. John C. Kennedy, President/CEO of Autocam Medical, is known as a creative and savvy businessman who often works alongside national business leaders and elected officials. Yet there is one other thing that everyone knows about Mr. Kennedy: he has a deeply personal passion for literacy as it relates to equity.

Excerpts from an interview with Alice Apol, the Literacy Center’s longest serving tutor and the recipient of this year’s Marshall Pitler Volunteer of the Year Award

From Fall 2015 Reader

“One learner that I worked with for a long period of time was Margaret Ortega. She still calls me now and we go out for lunch every once in a while. She became very proficient. In fact, when she took the last test, she tested right out of the program! She said, ‘I wish I had known that, I would have answered more questions wrong!”

For tutoring, “I think relationship-building is very important, especially in the beginning. Asking them a little bit about their lives, so they feel comfortable knowing that you’re interested in them as a person. And then each week we have a quick conversation about our weeks.”

Click here to read the full issue.

Nancy VanIngen, Program Assistant at the Literacy Center, celebrated her 25th Anniversary with the organization in May. Katy Payne talked with her about her experience.

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