When you meet Lilbet and her happy, spirited daughters, there is no trace of what they have been through over the past few years… or how far they have come.
Lilbet came to Mercy Learning Center in 2010 to learn English and earn a high school diploma. She started in our lowest level English language class and progressed rapidly, but soon had to abandon her studies. A daughter who remained in Mexico was in danger, and Lilbet was determined to get to her. While she was gone, MLC staff made sure that her two younger daughters were cared for.
With her daughter again safe, Lilbet returned to MLC and continued to study and advance. But soon another major hurdle arose: her landlord was being foreclosed upon and the bank notified her that she would have to move out immediately. Nearly overnight, the family was homeless.
Again, Lilbet turned to the one place she knew she could depend on—MLC. “Whenever I have a problem or a worry, I know that I can ask Jane, Lynn or others at MLC. They always give me support and very good advice to never give up.”
Staff members helped her find an affordable apartment in a safe neighborhood and MLC community members donated furniture, clothing, food and books. Lilbet and the girls moved in on Christmas Eve, joyful and relieved.
With holistic support from MLC, today Lilbet has a home, a job, a car, and a high school diploma. “This program totally changed my life,” she reflects. “After this I will go on to my next goal, to attend college and continue to study diligently and to improve my education. More than anything, I want to show my children the importance of education.”
It is strictly chance that Meley’s daughter is named Mercy. She was born just before Meley became a student at Mercy Learning Center. But little Mercy has grown up here, moving through MLC’s Early Childhood Education Program, from infant-care to toddler-care to pre-school.
While Mercy learns important social, problem-solving, motor, literacy and other skills in the pre-K class, Meley is just one floor up, working alongside her Adult Basic Education Level III classmates on reading, writing, speaking, math, science and social studies.
Meley came to the U.S. in 2010, after living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia where she remembers, “There was not enough food.” When she arrived in the U.S., “It was confusing… especially the language.” Conversations were “incomprehensible.” Now she is one of the more advanced students at MLC, preparing to earn a high school diploma in the next one-to-two years.
Meley and Mercy demonstrate the power of family literacy. When parents and children learn together, they are involved and invested in each other’s progress. MLC moms model diligence and the importance of literacy to their children, as the children build their own strong educational foundations.
This past winter, Meley and Mercy would arrive at MLC early and head to the kitchen to warm up and eat breakfast. There, Meley would multitask, both helping Mercy and fielding all of her many questions and reviewing the class material from the day before–an effort that did not go unnoticed by Mercy. Meley truly understands the importance of family literacy: “I need to learn English. If I improve my English, I can help my kids.”
Donna Orazio has been a volunteer tutor at Mercy Learning Center for nearly a decade and has a store of countless memories to draw upon when asked to describe her experience as a tutor.
“On the surface it’s a good thing: You’re helping a woman navigate a new language and the practical aspect is right there,” she says. “But it’s so much deeper as you watch the women find their footing, find their own voice.”
She shares a story about one of her students who couldn’t even look her in the eye for the first few weeks. Then, one day, the woman challenged Donna during a lesson. Donna was elated and congratulated her student on her newfound confidence and trust in her own intelligence.
Like so many of the people involved at MLC, Donna has always seen education as the key to progress: “Growing up, education was so important for me and I passed that along to my children. Education opens doors—it’s everything.” But she emphasizes that one doesn’t have to be a trained teacher to be a successful tutor, explaining how the materials, training and staff support at MLC provide a solid foundation.
As much as Donna is motivated by the big-picture goal for women to transform their lives and the lives of their families through education, she thrives on the little things as well: “It’s not just the big things… it’s the smiles, the sharing of cultures, that I know when their kids’ birthdays are. The kind of information that mothers exchange that is so universal.”
Asked what she would say to anyone considering becoming at tutor at MLC, Donna quickly replies, “Do it! Your life can be enriched by this experience in ways that you cannot measure.”
Every fall since she started teaching at Mercy Learning Center, Mary Beth Clayton declares, “This is the best class I’ve ever had!” Last year however, she insisted it truly was the best class in her 12 years of teaching the Adult Basic Education Level I class at MLC. Why was last year’s class so special? “The diversity.”
The 37 women in Mary Beth’s class came from 14 countries around the world. Each day, they gathered in the sunny third-floor classroom, sitting at round tables piled with books, notebooks, calculators, pens and pencils. Together the women developed a common language, English, working hard to learn new vocabulary, develop their writing and reading skills, and become confident English speakers.
But as Mary Beth explains, this class became so much more than a simple grouping of learners: “They created very strong friendships, across languages, ethnicities, ages and stations in life.” Cultural differences and commonalities proved a rich well of conversation topics throughout the year. When guests and donors visited the class, students took great pride in raising their hands and naming the countries of the other students: Mexico, Congo, Iraq, Colombia, Brazil, Haiti, Syria, Vietnam…
The women in Mary Beth’s class also represented a diversity of ages, ranging from 20 to 64. The older women in the class naturally took on the role of mentor to the younger women, offering marital or parenting advice and encouraging the younger women to stay focused on their learning.
“Each woman in this large, diverse class really challenged her fellow classmates to become better students, to speak English all day long, and to be a contributing member of the family that they formed,” reflects Mary Beth. “This group succeeded in motivating each other to appreciate the gift of education that MLC offers.”
Hayes and Clare Clark of Westport engage both their heads and their hearts in their support of MLC. Over the years, they have worn many hats here: Hayes is a member of the Board of Directors, co-chaired the development committee for several years, and recently became a volunteer tutor. Clare co-chaired the development committee with Hayes and provides vision and leadership for fundraising events. And for the last 20 years, they have been supporting MLC financially.
Their eagerness to help the women at Mercy Learning Center also stems from a concern for social justice. “One thing that draws me to this work is that you’re helping people who don’t have a circle to help themselves,” explains Clare. “We’re helping women who just didn’t get the breaks. They were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who’s helping them? It’s not glamorous, but they’re very deserving.” Originally from Fairfield County, Hayes has lived here most of his life and is also motivated to level the playing field: “I find it unconscionable that amidst all this wealth, there’s so much unmet need in Bridgeport.”
The Clarks are forthcoming about their own good fortune. “We had a good start in life,” explains Clare. Since they both had successful careers before having children in their mid-thirties, Clare made the choice to be a stay-at-home mom, an option she describes as a great privilege. “I had time and energy so, yes, of course I was involved in the kids’ schools and did the PTA, but through our church’s outreach to Bridgeport, it was plainly obvious that I was drawn there. It spoke to me.”
Logically, Hayes and Clare know that educating mothers is one of the best ways to help entire families. “The ripple effect is huge,” says Clare. “All the buzz these days is on preschool, but I want to talk to the TV and say, ‘you’ve got to start with the mother!’” Hayes agrees that educating women is a sound strategy for helping families avoid exploitation and reach better economic footing. “Literacy is key to better paying jobs and a better life,” he says.
As they help MLC in any way they can, Hayes and Clare also act from the heart. “Everybody has a need to feel good about something they’re doing. Having worked full-time for many years, I felt good about donating to charities,” says Hayes. He continues, “But I didn’t feel connected to the work. Now, the board membership and development activities make me feel that I am contributing on a more personal level.” Clare agrees: “I feel good using my strengths in meetings and event logistics and I feel that my unique gifts as a person have been appreciated, acknowledged and valued.”
For Hayes, becoming a tutor was the final step in giving back to MLC. “It was outside of my comfort zone and I find it to be very challenging” he admits. Then he continues, “It’s not always easy, but it’s rewarding.”
The Clarks encourage anyone who is curious about MLC to visit it in person and experience what they describe as the “enthusiasm and energy.” In fact, it was through one of MLC’s regular Introductory Luncheons that Clare first got Hayes hooked on Mercy Learning Center. She explains the impact of a visit to MLC saying, “Everything isn’t for everyone but a look-see at MLC is impressive. You can’t help but feel that it’s something that you want to help and be part of.”