Learning is the key to opportunity.
Since it opened its doors 10 years ago, Southwest Solutions’ Adult Learning Lab has given this key to more than 1,500 individuals seeking to improve their language, math and computer skills so they can better their employment, advance their education, and achieve personal goals of success.
“My life changed so much after I got my GED at the Learning Lab seven years ago,” said Marcos Loredo, 38.
Marcos enrolled in the Lab in 2013 in order to meet certain educational criteria for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program implemented by the Obama administration. During DACA, the Lab became a magnet for “Dreamers” yearning to legally live and work in the country that has been their home since they arrived as children. At the time, Marcos owned and operated a successful home remodeling company that employed six other people. The business is even more successful today.
Once he earned his GED after a year at the Lab, Marcos framed the certificate to display at his home for his family and friends to see. It still hangs prominently.
“It proves to everyone that it’s never too late to learn and achieve, and if I can do it, you can, too,” Marcos said. “It’s an inspiration not just for me, but for my children, my wife and my relatives.”
The Adult Learning Lab is located across from Clark Park in southwest Detroit. It provides GED preparation, English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, Adult Basic Education (ABE), and other educational support. It also connects individuals to job training, employment opportunities, financial coaching, and other services provided by Southwest Solutions and partner organizations to help individuals and families climb the economic ladder. The demographic composition of Lab students reflects the surrounding community that the Lab serves. Just over half of the students who’ve enrolled are Latino, and about a third are black. The Lab also has a partnership with nearby Freedom House to provide educational programing for individuals seeking asylum after fleeing persecution.
Alain Rwage came to the Lab through Freedom House in 2013. He had fled his homeland of Burundi after the repressive regime imprisoned and tortured him because of efforts to promote democracy. Though Alain spoke multiple languages, his English was rudimentary when he started ESL classes at the Lab. He completed the basic and advanced courses in nine months.
Alain also took advantage of the support services offered by Southwest Solutions to Lab students. He worked with workforce development, financial, and homeownership counselors after being granted asylum in 2014. As a result, he gained employment with FedEx, established and built his credit, and ultimately bought a home through a special incentive program that Southwest Solutions was implementing at the time.
Alain is still in that same home in Dearborn and continues to work for FedEx. Last year, he was granted his American citizenship. He also got married.
“I remember the Learning Lab with love,” Alain said. “I felt so welcome, which was very important for an immigrant trying to learn the language and adjust to a new world. The Lab connected me with the resources and information that I needed. Connection and information mean everything. It gave me access to the American Dream, and I’ll always be grateful to all the staff who helped me and made me feel like part of their family.”
The warm and welcoming culture of the Lab was established from the start and has remained fundamental in drawing students and facilitating their success.
“Adult education is founded on core values of mutual respect and the belief that we all have something to teach and to learn,” said Caitlyn Pisarski, who has served as manager of the Lab since 2017. “The Lab staff live these values daily and create the foundation upon which all of our programmatic achievements are built. And the participants of the Learning Lab provide endless inspiration with their courage to invest in themselves and embrace opportunity through education. We are humbled by their dedication and look forward to another ten years of growth.”
Caitlyn took over supervision of the Lab after Tim McGorey, who managed the Lab from its inception, retired. In its first year, the Lab served about 150 students. Enrollment has grown steadily, and in the past three years the Lab has served over 300 students annually.
“The Learning Lab opened at an opportune time for the community.” Tim said. “There was such a need for ESL and GED classes in southwest Detroit, and the response from people who needed these programs was tremendous. I feel very fortunate to get the instructors, tutors and volunteers that we did. They built caring relationships with the students and encouraged them to achieve their goals. I think often about the students who came to the Lab and wonder how they’re doing today.”
Two of the students that Tim reminisces about are Matt Williams and Angel Delgado. Both had dropped out of school and then started working manual-labor, dead-end jobs to get by. Each came to the realization that they wanted better in life. Matt and Angel both enrolled in the Lab to complete the GED with the intention of going to Wayne State and then embarking on careers that fulfill their respective interests.
Matt is now a senior at Wayne State and will graduate in the next year. He is studying journalism, and he reports for the campus newspaper, covering sports, which is one of his passions.
“I’m seeing the finish line for my degree, and it’s exciting,” Matt said.
Angel’s passion is Japanese culture and language. He graduated from Wayne State in 2017 with a double major in Japanese and Linguistics. He is now living in Japan, working as a teacher, and pursuing his Master’s.
“Things are going great for me and I’ll be starting my fifth year of teaching soon,” Angel said. “I recently received my Japanese driver’s license and bought a car since I intend to be here for some time.”
The countless success stories from the Lab of students achieving their goals and elevating their future are, of course, the very reason that the Learning Lab was envisioned.
Linda West was the guiding hand in creating the Lab. She served as our Director of Workforce Development at the time. Linda later served on the Southwest Solutions’ Board of Directors, from which she recently retired. She has been recognized for her long and distinguished career in workforce development and as a leading expert in the field.
“Of all the things I’ve worked on at Southwest Solutions, the Adult Learning Lab is my greatest point of pride,” Linda said. “The program is centered in the community and part and parcel of the community. Without foundational and effective educational development, workforce development cannot succeed. The Lab provides this foundation, and its impact on the adults and their families is immeasurable.”
When Raquel Chavira came to the Lab nine years ago, her two sons were teenagers. She was raising them on her own, following a divorce, and worked in a laundromat.
“We live paycheck to paycheck,” Raquel said at the time. “But we never feel poor because we have a lot of hope that we will achieve our dreams.”
Raquel completed ESL classes and then her GED at the Lab. Today she works at an upholstery business during the week and a catering business on weekends. Both her sons are in college. The oldest will graduate from Eastern Michigan this year and then intends to go to law school. The youngest is a junior at Michigan State and has a full scholarship.
“I am so proud of my sons, and I feel they were inspired by my accomplishments through the Learning Lab,” Raquel said. “I always spoke to them about the importance of education, but I feel the power of my example was more important than words. They are wonderful young men, and I know they will make a difference in this world.”
To learn more about the Adult Learning Lab, please email Caitlyn or call 313-451-8055.