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March 18, 2022, Grosse Pointe, Michigan – Kimberly Williams, Director of the Dominican Literacy Center, and Sister Janice Brown, OP, Director of the Siena Literacy Center, were recognized by Soroptimist International of Grosse Pointe on the evening of March 9, 2022, with the Ruby Award. Both literacy centers are located in Detroit and are sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters.

Soroptimist International of Grosse Pointe is a dynamic group of women who care about making the world a better place for women and girls. The group raises funds throughout the year to support women and girls with access to the education and training they need to achieve economic empowerment. 

Kimberly Williams, left, and Sister Janice Brown, OP, Ruby Award recipients, enjoy time together during the awards dinner.
Kimberly Williams, left, and Sister Janice Brown, OP, Ruby Award recipients, enjoy time together during the awards dinner.

Kimberly and Sister Janice received the Ruby Award in recognition of their outstanding work and dedication to women's education and growth. With the award, both literacy centers received donations to help continue their excellent work.    

Sister Janice has been involved in adult education since 2005. She was Director of the Dominican Literacy Center until 2017, when she began her work on a Doctorate in Ministry at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

“It was an honor to be highlighted as a leader in our community for women’s education,” Sister Janice said. “I was thrilled to … be with people who are passionate about it.” She praised the women of Soroptimist of Grosse Pointe for their dedication to providing a second chance to women who strive to overcome adversity and make a difference in the world.

Sister Janice said the work of literacy centers is to provide that second chance for people who are struggling with literacy issues – either native English speakers who didn’t gain sufficient skills in school or adult learners studying English as a Second Language (ESL). Offering a second chance at life “is part of cultivating that individual to be who God meant them to be,” she said. “We walk with [our adult learners]. We provide the education and support they need for the foundational level.” 

Adult learners tend to have “a lot on their plates, raising a family and putting food on the table,” Sister Janice said. “You’ve got to have a time in your life when you can put education in top priority.”

She spoke of some of Siena Literacy Center’s many success stories. One adult learner, an ESL student, earned her GED and is now taking classes to earn her two-year nursing degree. “That’ll be a better paying position, as well as filling a great need we have in society” for healthcare professionals, Sister Janice said. 

Kimberly was “happy and excited and honored” to receive the Ruby Award and, during the award evening, appreciated hearing the stories of the scholarship recipients, women who faced obstacles and moved forward in their lives. “It was very powerful to me to hear what people have gone through and how they’re pushing through,” she said. “It was very inspirational.”

She is also inspired by the adult learners at the Dominican Literacy Center. “My highlights are when I see people achieving their goals,” whether to earn a GED, read the Bible more effectively, or help their children, Kimberly said. She pointed to one student who spent years improving his reading and math skills so he can now work to earn his GED. Two staff members were originally adult learners at Dominican Literacy Center and are now able to give back, she added.

A native of Detroit, Kimberly graduated from college and moved to the East Coast, where she “worked for corporate America for a long time.” When she was laid off, she realized that her volunteer work had been more rewarding. After working for a high school, pairing tutors and students, she moved back to Detroit and was hired as program coordinator at Dominican Literacy Center. She earned a Master of Education degree in Reading from Marygrove College in Detroit. When Sister Janice left to work on her doctorate, Kimberly was hired as Director.

“This is my dream job,” Kimberly said. Still, she added, she has been challenged by the pandemic, which forced the Center to close at times and which brought on the need for Zoom for tutoring sessions and meetings. “Right now, we’re open and offer online and in-person instruction,” she said. “We’re working towards full capacity.”

The evening also honored women who courageously broke chains of oppression. Some struggled to get out of abusive relationships to make a better life for themselves and their families. Others had dreams to learn the skills that they would need to help others significantly. All received scholarships to continue their education and are doing the work needed to create a new trajectory of their lives. 

Lavina Hutchinson received the Virginia Wagner Award for women enrolled in a university degree program who work hard academically and either volunteer in the community or face financial challenges.
Nealmetria Loper, Delia Mustin, Denise Sargent, and Danyelle Easly received the Live Your Dream Award for women who are working toward a university degree and are the primary financial supports for their families.

Tonesia Nesbitt received the Continuing Education Award, which is given to Living Your Dream recipients working towards completing their university degrees.
Sister Janice Brown, OP, contributed to this article.

Feature photo (top): Celebrating with Sister Janice Brown, OP – Ruby Award recipient – are, back row, from left, Associates Geri Pleva, Carol Hofer, and Toni Adams and Sister Janet Stankowski, OP, and front row, from left, Sisters Nancyann Turner, OP, and Janice Brown, OP, Associate Mary Margaret Bommarito, and Dominican Volunteer Erinn Toth.

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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