New Literacy Program Helps Adults Brighten Their Prospects

February 14th, 2014
Youssouf Koulibaly at the WSU / Harris Literacy Program

[Detroit — February 2014] Jamie Hicks dropped out of high school more than 20 years ago when her father died. “He was my hero and I wanted to be like him, so I was too devastated to focus on school,” Jamie says.

Jamie is now 37. That is the same age when her father completed his GED and then started taking college classes so he could improve his and his family’s situation. Heartened by her father’s example, and feeling his presence beside her, Jamie has begun the GED preparation program at the recently opened Wayne State University / Harris Literacy Program in southwest Detroit. Jamie and her husband have three children.

“I cannot preach to my kids about the importance of education if I don’t practice what I preach,” Jamie says. “I need to lead by example. Working dead-end jobs because I don’t have enough schooling is not leading by example. I want to inspire my kids, like my father is inspiring me now.”

Jamie is one of 15 students in the literacy program on this bitterly cold winter night. Jamie’s class is one of two cohorts currently in the program. Each cohort comes two nights a week for three hours; one night for English instruction and the other night for math.

The program is funded through a grant that philanthropists Mort and Brigitte Harris made to Wayne State University to support adult literacy initiatives. WSU then collaborated with Southwest Solutions to establish this new site to help adults achieve their GED.

The site is located on Vernor Highway at Lawndale Street. It extends the mission and programming of the Southwest Solutions’ Adult Learning Lab, which is located two miles away, across from Clark Park in southwest Detroit. The program and the Lab are free for eligible adults.

‘There is a great need for the WSU / Harris Literacy Program,” says Tim McGorey, who manages the Adult Learning Lab. “We had a waiting list of 150 people at the Lab for GED preparation and we need to expand our capacity to serve. The individuals who come to us are highly motivated and work hard to meet their goals.”

The cohorts at the literacy program participate in 15-week terms. The inaugural term began on January 21. Participants can continue for more terms until they get their GED. Based on the success of the Learning Lab, promising outcomes are expected in the program. In the last half of last year, 11 enrollees at the Lab achieved their GED.

Most of the individuals attending the program work full-time and are seeking to advance their education so they can get a better job and build a better future.

Francisco Chaires, 22, dropped out in eleventh grade. He works in construction. He is on the verge of an event that has caused him to reconsider his career direction. Francisco and his wife are expecting their first child soon.

“I know that my schedule is going to get crazy, especially after the baby is born, but I also know that I must make time to come to the program,” Francisco says. “It’s important so I can make more income and take care of my family.”

Marissa Lopez, 28, works six days a week, eight to ten hours each of those days, as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant. She has a nine-year-old son and is going through a divorce.

“The divorce has really made me think about the future and what I want my life with my son to be like,’ Marissa says. “Right now, I work so much and make too little. And I don’t get to spend the time with my son that I want to. But even though coming to the program takes me away from him, my son is so happy that I’m doing this. He wants me to get ahead.”

Marissa was born in Mexico and did not have the opportunity to go beyond sixth grade in the poor rural village where she grew up. Even with this significant gap in her schooling, she is determined to take the GED in a year.

“This is the first time in my life that I have been so excited about learning,” Marissa says. “I want to go to college, too, and get a real job where I am not so stressed about how I’m going to provide a good life for my son and me.”

John Crespo, 27, works full time during the week in a machine shop, and then works Friday and Saturday nights in a restaurant. He aspires to take the GED within a year and then apply for college.

“My dream is to go to Wayne State and study to be an engineer or a software programmer,” John says.

Of all the students at the literacy program, perhaps no one has journeyed as far as Youssouf Koulibaly. Three years ago, Youssouf, 34, fled the rampant violence and strife in Mali. He found refuge at Freedom House in Detroit, and applied for asylum, which was finally granted just as he started his GED preparation at the program. Youssouf has been working full-time for the last seven months as a machine operator.

“The program is really helping me with my math and English skills,” Youssouf says. “My first language is French, and English is a very hard language to learn because of all the idioms. But I feel I am making good progress. Once I get my GED, I want to go to college to be a nurse or an IT specialist.”

On this night at the literacy program, the instruction was about math. Bud Mandeville is the math teacher. His wife Marcee volunteers. Bud and Marcee circulate around the room, helping students with practice questions when needed. They are quite busy during the three hours.

The students help each other, too, and there is a strong sense of collegiality. Each of the students has a different and compelling story that brings them here at this auspicious moment. Yet, each understands that they share a singular goal which the program can help them achieve.

The WSU / Harris Literacy Program needs volunteers to help tutor math and English. Helping these dedicated students is a fulfilling endeavor and time well spent. If you would like to volunteer, please email Chery Allen or call 313-297-1377.

To learn more about the WSU / Harris Literacy Program, email Tim McGorey or call 313-451-8056.


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