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December 18, 2020, Chicago – Adult literacy students are known for their persistence. Many learn English as a second language or improve their reading or writing skills under challenging circumstances. For Areej, an adult learner from Bethlehem in Palestine, and her tutor, Sister Joan Mary, OP, those setbacks have been more numerous than most during just over a year of working together. 

A tutor at Aquinas Literacy Center in Chicago, Sister Joan explained, “Areej came to me at Aquinas Literacy Center to learn English,” Areej’s first language is Arabic. “She’s very eager to learn and is just a wonderful student.” 

Sister Joan Mary, OP, left, and Areej meet at Aquinas during the pandemic.

They began their one-on-one tutoring sessions in October 2019, months before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the temporary shut-down of Aquinas. When the literacy center reopened in September, Sister Joan said, many of the tutoring pairs met remotely, via Zoom. However, because Areej did not have access to a computer, she and Areej met in person – but with a table and a sheet of plastic between them. 

“We met at a time that I was given, when nobody else was there, because that’s how they managed it,” Sister Joan said. “It was very difficult. [Literacy students] have to see your mouth and hear how the words are pronounced – and I was wearing a mask, and so was she.”

Areej faced another setback when she learned that her mother – who was going to travel from Bethlehem to help her with her baby boy, Rami – was stopped at the Palestine border and not allowed to leave the country.

Still, Sister Joan said, she and Areej persisted – until Areej went to Bethlehem to be with her family. She had taken Rami for an extended visit with her mother and other family members. 

The two now conduct their weekly tutoring sessions via Zoom remotely – at a distance of 6,185 miles and an eight-hour time difference. “Areej has the use of a computer in Palestine, so I’m able to meet her by Zoom,” Sister Joan said. “The cute part about it is that every once in awhile, somebody from the family comes in to see the teacher.” 

When the Internet connections work, she said, the tutoring sessions work out well. “I have to hold the book up and I make flash cards and hold them up to the screen,” she said. “We’re on lesson 9 of the book and ready to go on.”

Sister Joan expects that when Areej returns to Chicago, possibly early in the new year, they’ll meet in yet a different way – remotely through an iPad. Thanks to a successful Giving Tuesday campaign, Aquinas Literacy Center raised $10,050 – exceeding its goal of $6,260 – to cover the cost of 10 iPads for use by its adult learners. 

“The student has the use of the iPad during the time that they’re studying English at the Center,” Sister Joan explained. “When they leave, they hand it in like they would a rental book. It’ll be so much easier [to connect through an iPad] than in person with masks.” 

The ultimate hope, of course, is to return to meeting in person – without masks and without fear of spreading the virus. Yet, whether meeting remotely in the Chicago area or across 6,185 miles, Areej and Sister Joan plan to continue their work together. “She’s very eager about learning English,” Sister Joan said. 

Feature photo: Sister Joan Mary, OP, left, and her student Areej pose during an early tutoring session (pre-COVID).

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November 8, 2018, Buffalo, New York – Adrian Dominican Sister Xiomara Méndez-Hernández, OP, a Chaplain at the Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, delivered one of the keynote addresses November 4 at the 2018 National Religious Vocation Directors Convocation. Following the theme of the convocation, “Walk with Me: Encounter, Accompaniment, and Invitation,” Sister Xiomara focused on the invitation of communities and vocation directors to women and men who might have a call to religious life. A native of the Dominican Republic, Sister Xiomara professed her perpetual vows in her native land in December 2017 and serves on the Core Team of Giving Voice, a peer network of finally professed Roman Catholic Sisters younger than the age of 50. Watch Sister Xiomara’s keynote address.



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