News & Blog: Advocate Spotlights

***

About: Libby Wahlstrom is a fundraising professional with 15 years of experience in the field. She began her career at an affordable housing nonprofit in Berkeley, CA before moving to Habitat for Humanity San Francisco and then on to her alma mater, Albion College. In 2012, Libby returned to her hometown of Grand Rapids to take the position of Development Director at the Literacy Center of West Michigan. In her role at the Literacy Center, Libby directs all of the fundraising and communication efforts for the organization. Libby graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BA in History and Women’s Studies from Albion College.

About: Diedre Deering joined the Literacy Center in September 2007 and currently serves as the Executive Assistant and Office Manager. Diedre supports the executive director, the board of directors, manages all office equipment and is the liaison between the office and our landlord, the City of Grand Rapids. She earned her B.A. from Davenport University in general business. In addition to her responsibilities at the Literacy Center, she is involved in several community organizations, serving as the president of the Monroe North Business Association and Neighborhood Business Alliance. She is serving her 2nd term on the Monroe North TIFA and her first term on the Cascade Township Planning Commission. She has served as a deacon and on the Pastoral Search Committee at Thornapple Community Church. 

About Me: My name is Megan Bowers, and I'm excited for my first year teaching in the Family Literacy Program. I grew up in Grand Haven, Michigan and graduated from Grand Valley State University with my Bachelor's in secondary English education and ESL.

Micki1“Compelled is a perfect word,” says Micki Benz, outgoing president of the Literacy Center’s Board of Directors. “I have not been compelled to join any board as much as I have been with the Literacy Center. It sucked me right in.”

About: Jennifer Summers is Program Coordinator for Customized Workplace English at the Literacy Center of West Michigan.  After receiving a B.A. in Romance Languages from DePauw University, she taught English in Japan for two years with the JET Program. The experience prompted her to pursue an M.A. in TESOL, which she earned from Eastern Michigan University. She spent several years teaching post-secondary English to speakers of other languages in Minnesota and Michigan before coming to the Literacy Center in 2016. 

About me: My name is Carrie Roper, and I am the Integrated Education and Training (IET) Coordinator and an English instructor with the Customized Workplace English program. I first came to the Literacy Center in 2015 as an AmeriCorps member for the Family Literacy Program. I spent 2 and a half years serving in that role before becoming a part-time and then full-time member of the staff. I have taught classes here for almost 6 years, and have grown so much both professionally and personally. I was encouraged by my fellow staff members to get my Master’s in TESOL, which I received from Cornerstone University in 2018, and I also have a Bachelor’s in Social Work from Grand Valley State University.

About Me: I’ve been teaching ESL since 1990! I started teaching without any formal qualifications other than a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Public Relations at a Sporting Goods Company in Germany. I enjoyed it so much that I went on to get a certificate in TESOL and then went on to earn my Masters Degree in Linguistics/ TESOL. Since 1990, I’ve taught primarily Customized Workplace English, but have also taught general Adult Ed classes, Specialized courses (e.g. ESL for construction, for Industrial sewing, for Pharmacy Technicians, and for U.S. Citizenship ). I’ve taught ESL part-time for several institutions, but have been with the Literacy Center of West Michigan the longest since 2002!   

About Me: My name is Bree Straayer, and I have been teaching and tutoring English and Writing for the last ten years, primarily at the high school and college level. Before that, I worked as a licensed childcare provider for several years. This year, I graduated with my PhD in Rhetoric and Writing at Michigan State University, and being a "non-traditional" student with a full life, I am proud of that achievement. I have three children -  a daughter in college, a son in high school, and another son in middle school.

About: Chad Patton is the director of the Customized Workplace English program at the Literacy Center of West Michigan. Chad graduated from Grand Valley State University with a dual degree in English Literature and Language and Spanish, both with an emphasis in Secondary Education. Throughout his career, Chad has been an educator in different capacities: he has coached swim teams, taught literacy to elementary school children, taught English to high school students, and now he directs an adult education program. Chad returned to school at Grand Valley to receive a master’s degree in Adult and Higher Education. He graduated with an M.Ed in 2016 and continues to practice the adult education portion of his degree by creating community programs throughout the Greater Grand Rapids area.

About me: Hello, my name is Alyssa and I'm originally from Grand Rapids, but have worked and lived abroad for the past 8 years! I am currently an English Instructor at the Literacy Center both for the Family Literacy and Workplace English programs. A little bit about myself is, I recently graduated with my Master's Degree in Education from the Universidad de Alcala in Madrid, Spain. I also have a Bachelor's Degree from Anderson University in Psychology. I have over 7 years of experience teaching ESL both to children and adults in the United States, South Korea and Spain. I am passionate about making English interesting, engaging and exciting for my learners! 

Johanna Schulte is a Grand Rapids native. She works in the City of Grand Rapids Community Development department and has been tutoring with the Literacy Center since 2017. She recently spoke with her Literacy Coordinator about her experience. 

Why did you decide to tutor with the Literacy Center?

I was interested in finding a volunteer opportunity and found out about the work of the Literacy Center from a friend. I wanted to be involved in work that would contribute to making our community a more welcoming and equitable place.

Guest Blogger: Omar Cuevas, Vice President for Sales and Marketing at the Grand Rapids Chamber and Literacy Center Board Member

As a kid growing up in Southern California in the early 80’s, I served as an interpreter for my grandmother while my mom, grandpa and uncles were working. They pay wasn’t bad at all. My nana made the most wonderful homemade flour tortillas she would hand to me right off the stove as she made them with her beautiful hardworking hands.

Being the oldest grandson and already having an education (consisting of being able to read and speak English) and in the 4th grade, I was often called in to action. Joining my grandma and cousins or my sister to a doctor’s office or dentist appointment. Sometimes we would need to take a bus, and this would usually end with my nana having to hail a police officer to help us because we took the wrong bus.

This week’s story comes from one of our AmeriCorps team members, Anna Leo. She teaches at Cesar E. Chavez as an ESL instructor for our Family Literacy Program (FLP). 

“Sometimes, I wonder how beneficial our friendly conversation is. We always finish the class work that we need to, but, every so often, the topics of learning prompt unexpected and sometimes rambling conversation--a discussion about home life, the analysis of a meme found online, or the sharing of miscellaneous recipes.

Kari Sovereign served as an AmeriCorps member with the Literacy Center last year, and is returning this year for a second service year. She spoke with Libby Wahlstrom about her experience. 

Why did you want to become an AmeriCorps member with the Literacy Center? 

During my Capstone for my Master’s Degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), I got involved Kari Sovereign copy copywith the Literacy Center as a volunteer tutor. I was matched with a learner from Burma, named Say Paw, and I continue to be her tutor to this day. I received information about the AmeriCorps program through my professor at Cornerstone and was immediately interested in the opportunity for teaching experience and connecting with the Grand Rapids Public Schools community.

Describe your role. What is your job like?

My official position is an ESL instructor, but we as AmeriCorps members have many roles in the community. Last year, I taught ESL classes at Cook Library, Buchannan, Burton, Dickinson and West Godwin schools in the morning and in the afternoon. My learners were adult beginning learners of English with children that attended Grand Rapids Public Schools or Godwin Heights Public Schools.

Leandra Pogson is our AmeriCorps Bilingual Support Advocate. She is a native of the Dominican Republic, and lived for several years in Puerto Rico. Leandra just signed on for an additional year of AmeriCorps service, and spoke with Libby Wahlstrom about her experience. 

 

Leandra

Why did you want to become an AmeriCorps member with the Literacy Center?

Belonging to AmeriCorps gives me the opportunity to gain experiences and get closer to the community, while also allowing me to collaborate with the purpose of supporting the Family Literacy Program.

Describe your role. What is your work like?

I am the liaison between the learners and the program. I provide support to the team and collect data. Also, I provide orientation and information to the learners according to their needs and sometimes I serve as the recruitment agent for the program.

Guest Blogger: Kari Sovereign. Kari is an AmeriCorps Family Literacy Program instructor. She teaches English classes to parents in local school districts. We're thrilled that she is returning as an AmeriCorps member again next year. 

The Family Literacy English class that I teach at Cook Library Center quickly fell into a routine last fall with a group of Karidedicated English language learners. It was during the second week of classes that a woman with what appeared to be a large growth on her back came to class. Maria introduced herself and told us she is from Guatemala and has lived in America for 14 years. She is happily married with six children, five of them boys, and the baby is a girl.  With the help of the other women in class, she quickly assimilated and the session moved along smoothly. 

Navi Gill is an AmeriCorps member who served as a family literacy tutor before becoming a family literacy ELL instructor. 

One of the very first learners I was matched with was a young woman named Sah. Sah came from Burma to the United NaviStates as a refugee after spending many years in a refugee camp. She sought out the services of the Literacy Center because she wanted to improve her English conversation and reading skills in order to be able to help her child succeed in school and to find meaningful work. At first I was admittedly nervous to meet with someone who had overcome so much in their short life, but Sah’s kind demeanor and welcoming smile during our first lesson immediately put any anxieties I had to rest.

Q & A with Anna Linder, outgoing AmeriCorps Bilingual Learner Support Advocate. The Literacy Center is currently accepting applications for this AmeriCorps position for the 2017-18 program year. 

1. What first drew you to this AmeriCorps position at the Literacy Center?Anna Lindner

I was referred to AmeriCorps by my mentor at Calvin College, who knows about my passion for racial justice. I chose the Bilingual Learner Support Advocate position because I would be able to speak Spanish and interact with learners, continue my work with data, and be in an academic environment, which would utilize my strengths.

2. What is your favorite part about the position?

I enjoy the relationships/coordinating aspect of my position. I work with instructors to ensure that we have collected all the correct data by delegating and by visiting schools whenever necessary. Our team works together very well, and it’s been satisfying to see everything get done efficiently and effectively.

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.

Sign up for our email newsletter

Get the latest word on upcoming events, opportunities and achievements, delivered straight to your mailbox.