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Three women smile at the camera. Left to right, a white woman wearing glasses with her long brown hair pulled back into a bun; a Black woman with curly, brown, shoulder-length hair wearing glasses; a Black woman with short, straight, reddish-brown hair and large gold hoop earrings.

By Caitlyn Pisarski, LMSW-C
Executive Director, Siena Literacy Center

March 25, 2024, Detroit – It can be challenging for adult learners to return to school – even more so when dealing with housing insecurity, childcare, legal problems, or other issues.

Siena Literacy Center, a sponsored institution of the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Northwest Detroit, is addressing these problems head-on with a new Community Resource Navigation Program. This program connects adult learners to community resources so they can find the support they need to focus on studying.

“If you’re worrying about if your kids are going to eat later, you can’t get on the computer for two hours to learn,” said Juliet Brown-Graves, who joined the Siena team in December 2023 as the new Community Resource Navigator. Juliet has a long history of working with community organizations. She completed her bachelor’s degree in human services in 2022 at Siena Heights University, also a sponsored institution of the Adrian Dominican Sisters.

So far, Juliet helped students meet various needs, including mental health resources, Section 8 housing, and benefits from the State of Michigan. She loves how the position gives students the support they need to pursue their educational goals.

“Some of them stop coming because they’re worried about their needs,” Juliet said. “I like that my position is helping them sustain their education while I’m worrying about the community stuff.”

Siena Literacy Center provides adult learners with one-on-one tutoring in reading, math, and English as a Second Language. The non-profit was founded in 1995 by Sister Mary Hemmen, OP. Some 214 students were enrolled in the 2022-23 school year. 

Siena Literacy Center staff had long realized that students often required additional assistance outside of academics and that they turned to their tutors for help. In 2023, staff began screening new students for community resource needs and found that more than 75% needed some social work assistance. New learners are now screened to see if they need help with food, housing, job placement, benefits, clothing, legal advice, domestic violence, mental health services, or financial literacy.

A grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan enabled Siena to hire a full-time Community Resource Navigator to assist these students. Juliet is assisted by two social work interns, Marissa Johnson and Crystal White.

“Meeting the students and getting to know them has been a great learning opportunity,” said Marissa, who is in her first year of Wayne State University’s Master of Social Work program. Marissa has worked at Siena since August, enrolling new students, following up on community referrals, and performing wellness checks on students with attendance issues.

“I have become aware of many different programs and opportunities that are available for adult learners,” Marissa said. “I have also noticed many ways that the policies and society can make it difficult for adult learners to achieve their goals. I want to be an agent of change, and Siena makes that possible.

Crystal, who joined Siena’s team in January 2024, is in the second year of her bachelor’s degree program at Wayne State and plans to earn her master’s. She hopes to work in child welfare or school social work.

The team has already worked with more than 70 students and will continue to provide additional Support. The focus of Siena Literacy Center continues to be on education. With the help of community partners and referral networks like United Way’s 2-1-1, the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network, and many other nonprofits, students will be more ready than ever to meet their academic goals. 

This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of The Dominican Table, the newsletter of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Office of Dominican Charism.  


Feature photo at top: From left, Marissa Johnston, Juliet Brown-Graves, and Crystal White live the Dominican Charism at Detroit's Siena Literacy Center. Photo Courtesy of Siena Literacy Center.


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