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By Sister Lenore Boivin, OP
Detroit – At Siena Literacy Center on the Northwest side of Detroit, the Adrian Dominican Sisters and their partners in ministry have pledged lives and resources to address the issues of racism and to work with persons on the margins to make a difference one life at a time.
The daily focus is on enhancing one more skill … one, by one, by one. It happens every day, and it shows with a smile on a face, a head held high, a change in posture, and with the reports of changes in daily life. Many call Siena “my school.”
Evidence of the positive difference shows in the many stories of tutors and learners who form a bond, a close-knit relationship in which learners share honestly and tutors give of their time and knowledge to empower the learners, who might have been disenfranchised because of skin color, inequality, appearance, ability, or labels. Siena offers literacy, but the larger benefit is empowerment.
One story of empowerment involves a learner, CC, and his tutor, SM. CC is challenged by difficulty in reading, by physical disability, and by a utility company that makes demands upon him and treats him with outright disrespect. He is on the verge of being denied a basic need because of the disabilities – not because he cannot pay.
CC’s tutor has become one of his greatest advocates, standing in long lines and fighting for his dignity and rights. CC is important and he is learning to believe it … because of his tutor’s relentless work with him and his trust of her. What a difference their relationship has made.
AW, a very determined woman with a lot of energy, came to Siena hoping to learn to read. She continues to work hard to improve her reading. When Sister Pat learned of AW’s desire to work on her sewing skills, she gifted AW with an apron, which AW used as a pattern. AW took sewing classes and, with a new domestic sewing machine, made her first aprons as Christmas presents for her family. Now she is selling her creations. What a difference their relationship has made.
Another learner, AM, came to the center stooped and silent, with very low self-esteem and in need of help with reading, writing, and math. As he began to believe in himself, he began to greet others. He lost weight. He then began study for his GED, all the while being supported by tutors who challenged and believed in him. His learning has progressed because of his determination. AM took the GED Math test three times, each time understanding better what it would take to pass the test. Just recently he passed it on his fourth try. What a difference the relationships at Siena Literacy Center have made for this young man!
BD is an English as a Second Language (ESL) learner from Africa who worked hard to learn English with his tutor JC. He learned enough to become the owner of an auto repair shop. After his children graduated from college and established themselves in good jobs, BD decided to come back to Siena Literacy Center to continue improving his own English skills with a new tutor, RJ.
RW made the request to come to Siena Literacy Center from the courts. It helps that he is being supported now by those officials who see the difference Siena Literacy has made. He draws significant support from his fiancée and has a strong relationship with his tutor, ML, who encourages him along the way. RW has said, “It wasn’t until I got to Siena Literacy Center that I learned that I could learn.” At 36, he finally realizes this! What a wonderful thing to know about himself!
These stories are little known, with no headlines or trumpet blasts. But they are vital. Siena meets individuals where they are and works with them – but Siena is also changed. We, too, are elevated when we know the worth of every individual, when racism is left in the cold outside, when intolerance changes to a warm embrace, and when peace is the gift we have to offer one another. Make no mistake – both individuals, learner and tutor, are gift to one another. We are equal, gifted, faith-filled, experienced, caring, and a joy to be with.