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January 26, 2018, Detroit – Sister Mary Hemmen, OP, founder of two literacy centers based in Detroit, recently received a Distinguished Service Award from the city for her contributions to the community. 

After being a traditional classroom teacher, Sister Mary turned to adult education when she founded Siena Literacy Center in Detroit in 1995. Building upon that success, she was also instrumental in founding All Saints Literacy Center, which opened in 2015 in a predominantly Hispanic section of Detroit.

“Sister Mary has been a champion for adult education for many years and has inspired numerous volunteers, tutors, and staff,” said Roger Frank, Director of All Saints. “All Saints Literacy Center is forever in debt to her for her work at the Center, and we continue to grow our program as one that has high standards that she set.”

Roger worked with members of the Board of Directors to obtain the Distinguished Service Award for Sister Mary. He contacted Raquel Castañeda-López, Council woman for All Saints’ district.

In his letter to the council, Roger wrote that Sister Mary “is a person who has given so much of her time and talent assisting Detroiters and has never sought any recognition. Sister Mary has worked tirelessly for the adults in Detroit who have struggles with literacy. Her work continues through the many volunteer tutors at Siena Literacy Center and All Saints Literacy Center.” 

Although the Detroit City Council announced the award in November 2017, Sister Mary only recently received the certificate, just days before she died on January 25, 2018.

“I never stopped teaching,” she said in an interview after receiving the award. “Very often I worked with the learners.” She also served as mentor to the staff and on the Board of Directors. 

Siena and All Saints are among the seven literacy centers sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. The centers offer free tutoring and other services to people who seek to improve their skills in the English language – either native English speakers or people in the English as a Second Language program.

Sister Mary noted that she “loved every minute” of her work in the two literacy centers, adding that the need for these services is increasing.

Donna Nesbitt, Executive Director of Siena Literacy Center said Sister Mary was a “champion of those in need of literacy skills necessary to improve their lives and the lives of their families.. She was tireless and tenacious in her efforts to secure funding, materials and supplies necessary to do this most important work.”

Mary Francis, former member of the Siena Literacy Center Advisory Board and Board of Directors, spoke of her delight in working with Sister Mary. “Sister Mary was no fuss, no drama, kind, and compassionate, a dedicated, professional educator who did her absolute best to ensure everyone felt welcome and respected… Many people's lives were changed as a result of Siena Literacy Center. Sister Mary believed in the power of education to reduce poverty and she believed in the city of Detroit. Thank God for her efforts.”

From left, Roger Frank, Director of All Saints Literacy Center; Sister Mary Hemmen, OP; and Chris Verklan, administrative assistant at All Saints Literacy Center in Detroit.

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June 14, 2016, Detroit, Michigan – About 100 Detroit residents – predominantly Spanish-speaking – have passed through the doors of a very special room in the former St. Anthony Church on Vernor Highway in Detroit, exploring the opportunity to improve their skills in English. In all, 58 learners have actually begun the hard work of improving their English. This is a promising and hopeful beginning as All Saints Literacy Center prepares to mark its one-year anniversary in July.

All Saints is the seventh literacy center to be founded and sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters – the third in Detroit. The literacy centers provide the opportunity for the Congregation to meet the needs of our times by building on the traditional ministry of education.

All Saints has been under discussion since 2012, said Sister Mary Hemmen, OP, who had served as director of Siena Literacy Center in Detroit. She represented the Adrian Dominican Sisters at archdiocesan meetings to determine the needs of Detroit. “Demographics in this area showed the need for literacy,” she said. Once a Lithuanian center, the area is now predominantly Hispanic, with most residents from Mexico and others from such countries as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. 

From left, Roger Frank, Sister Mary Hemmen, and Chris Verklan stand in the middle of All Saints Literacy Center.

Sister Mary worked to develop All Saints and continues serving the center as mentor and tutor. Serving on the staff are Roger Frank, director, and Chris Verklan, program assistant.

Once described as a “beehive” of activity, All Saints is filled on Wednesday evenings – its busiest time – with adult learners and their tutors, working together at open tables or cubicles, taking coffee and cookie breaks from their two-hour session, or working individually on computers. Hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays and 9:00 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Currently, 25 students – mostly English as a Second Language (ESL) students – attend sessions at All Saints, a slight dip in attendance during the summer months. 

“One-on-one tutoring is the highest draw here,” Roger said. “Some students have tried group classes, but haven’t felt comfortable or found them intimidating or embarrassing. They like working one-on-one.” But the students are also asked to work individually on the computer on another day for 90 minutes to two hours, using such programs as Rosetta Stone and USA Learns. 

Students come to All Saints with a variety of needs, interests, and goals, Roger said. Literacy center staff members meet with the students three times to assess their needs and their literacy level. A few are illiterate in their native language, mostly Spanish, while others are referred to All Saints through the nearby Adult Learning Lab, which offers GED classes, so that they can enhance their literacy enough to take the GED courses.

“We work with the students where they are to meet their needs,” Roger explained.  For example, while many of the students have experience with the Internet through Smart phones and about half have access to computers at home, “three or four students so far have no access. We teach them to use the mouse and set them up with email so they can communicate with family and friends and do job searches.”   

The former St. Anthony Church, now owned by the social services agency Southwest Solutions, houses All Saints Literacy Center.

All Saints staff members, often with the help of tutors, also help students to articulate specific goals. “Many students at first come with a very broad goal – just to get better at English,” Roger said. “We don’t push them, but we might encourage them to think about the last time they were asked something and they didn’t have the English skills they needed.” 

He estimated that 80 percent of the students are women, and that about 90 percent of the women have children. “Almost all want to know English so they can help their children with their homework or speak with the teacher,” he said. One student said she and her daughter work on their homework together. “You couldn’t ask for a better family literacy program,” he said. “It’s great for kids to see their parents learning.”

Roger has learned not to make any assumptions about the adult learners. “What’s amazing about ESL students is that they have all kinds of skills.” Some, he noted, are well educated in their native countries but haven’t yet mastered English – and thus can’t find jobs here on a level with their training and experience, so they’re underemployed. “Some don’t really know English but they could take a car apart and put it together.”

Roger said that the emphasis of All Saints’ first year was establishing a routine for adult learners and their tutors. As the literacy center nears its second year, he hopes to work on one of the major challenges: finding more tutors. Throughout the first year, students have had to be placed on a waiting list until more tutors can be found.  

Tutors receive orientation and training, as well as an overview of All Saints and the other six literacy centers sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters under the Adrian Rea Literacy Foundation. After tutors have worked for 20 hours with their student, All Saints staff members check in to see if they need more help and support in their work. Tutors also receive ongoing help and support from the staff whenever needed. 

For information on how to become a tutor at All Saints, call 313-297-1399 or email allsaintsliteracy@gmail.com

Roger discovered his own passion for tutoring as a volunteer tutor for Dominican Literacy Center (DLC), the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ first literacy center, established 25 years ago in Detroit. When he felt it was time to change his career after working in an advertising agency, he followed his passion and earned certification in education through Wayne State University in Detroit.    

“It is the work of the Holy Spirit” that Roger and Chris have been able to offer their services and gifts to All Saints Literacy Center, Sister Mary said. “This is sacred space. It’s always been sacred space.”




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