Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Friday, May 16, 2014
By Mary Willson, Communication Intern
A phone call can represent many life changes. The death of a loved one, the arrival of the youngest member of a family, the return of an old friend. Or, the start of something no one can imagine.
Academy of Hope was started when Marja answered a phone call from Gayle, a friend from church asking if she wanted to help teach GED students. The two had no idea that, this very conversation would be the roots for an adult charter school serving over 500 students a year, thriving 30 years later.
Looking back on the phone call, Marja recalls she was waiting for it subconsciously. She was ready for her calling. She just wasn't expecting it to come so literally.
Having taught school before in Minnesota, Marja was passionate about education but her teaching license didn't transfer to Washington, DC where her family had relocated to join the Church of the Saviour.
The church is rooted in the mission of members going out in the world and making change. “Money, prestige, power isn't important. You need to follow your deepest desire to where it meets the pain of the world.” She explains the church is based on calling and mission, which seems fitting looking back on her journey.
She prayed about it, and joined Gayle, who was teaching through the Church’s job program, Jubilee Jobs. “She didn't want to do it alone anymore. So, now there were two of us.” The two rented a room in the Church’s apartment building for low-income community members. It was meant to be a guard room, but the building couldn't afford a guard. It was $50 rent.
Top: Marja, Gayle and first student, Linda.
Bottom: Marja and Gayle at the new building, built in 2007,
22 years after they started teaching together
Both teachers knew two students who wanted their GED’s. Their first class was those four, meeting three hours a day, four days a week. She reflects that they were like a family.
Word of mouth spread, and by their second year they had taught 19 students. But one of those original students became a co-founder, right along with her teachers. Linda Brown was the first Academy of Hope Graduate.
“I remember her saying ‘I just can’t wait to get off dole [government funding].’ Even though she had four young children, she made it to every class and did all her homework.” She would make up her own assignments. “She said one day, ‘why don’t I write a book report?’ A book report had never occurred to me!” Marja remembers with a laugh. There was no training program at that time to teach GED. “Linda was instrumental to learning how to teach GED.”
On her second try, she passed the test after 18 months working with Marja and Gayle. “She was a really good learner. She was a straight arrow, with nothing holding her back.”
After the excitement of getting Linda through the program, Gayle moved on to another mission. Marja expanded the school on her own, recruiting new students and teachers.
“I just worked day by day, caring for the people who were there.”
A memorable moment in the growth of the school came with a friend of the Church, a nuclear physicists helped Marja write a fundraising letter with the first computer she had ever seen. That was in 1986. The program was in the basement of that building for eight years.
The school has been called Academy of Hope since day 1, when Gayle came up with the name. Marja said “felt too hokey” to her. “But it has served us very well. It really has,” for one, starting with an “A” is good for search results, especially in the time of phone books. “One of my very memorable students, came here because of the “hope” in Academy of Hope. [The student] saw ‘hope’ and said that’s what I need, ‘hope’”. Marja thinks Oprah found the school in 2003 for the Angel Network Award through the name.
After 70 students were enrolled and 30 volunteers were teaching, Marja hired the first Executive Director. “It was always kind of step by step. This is what needs to be done now. Either back track and shrink, or meet the demand. So we wanted to grow.”
A major part of the school’s growth was friend Tom Brown. He left his career at the Labor Department to join The Hope as a full time teacher, working for free. “Without him I don’t think we would have made it. He was more than a cornerstone,” Marja explained reflecting on how having Tom to talk to and share in the daily challenges of the school was priceless.
While it may sound that Marja spent all her time at the school, she has a husband and three children as well. When asked about parenting while starting the school, she ponders and says “There’s no perfection in this life.” The family had always lived in a community based around church projects or her husband’s organization, Josephs House, a house serving homeless men and women suffering from AID’s.
“One day I came home and my son had a bandage on his head. He had fallen and hit is head on the corner of a dumpster when he was running in an alley. The nurse [at Josephs house] had just sewed it up. That’s when I realized I should be around more,” she says with a reminiscent smile on her face.
Marja and her husband are expecting their 4th grandchild this year.
She has been a teacher for most of her adult life, and with Academy of Hope going on 29 years. It is apparent her passion for teaching goes beyond the classroom.
“I always thought that one of the things we need to offer is encouragement. That there is hope that something good can come out of all this effort. Education is a long and strenuous process, you just have to keep at it.
We want to be a school where all of us are both students and teachers care for each other because all of us need to be cared for.
If your students don’t feel that you care for them, they will not care for learning in your class. They will not care for their learning. They can’t. People need to feel the support. So you have to create that emotional connection for people to feel comfortable and valued.”
The funny thing is, Marja has touched dozens, if not hundreds of lives through her years of teaching. But she has never had a teacher touch her life.
“ I just came from such a different world. Teachers were stern, discouraging. My parents kept telling me I was smart but often teachers made us feel like only one of the students in the class was smart.” And that student Marja explains, wasn't her.
But her passion doesn't come from the past, it comes from a deep rooted appreciation of helping others.
“There’s no greater joy than being part of someone else’s success, it’s almost better than your own success! In your own success there’s pressure to succeed again, to keep growing. But It’s just pure joy being a coach or a teacher. Of course there are many challenges but I think life is meant to be challenging, and I have to keep reminding myself of that.”
Marja has seen the Academy of Hope grow from four to four-hundred.
“I’m concerned that the student will continue to receive the support that they need. As organizations grow, special needs must be taken. It’s a challenge to make a setting available for every student for the emotional needs to be met as well. Safe and encouraged,” she explains. But she sees the plus side in the career opportunities, social services and the opportunities that Academy of Hope will be able to give the students this coming year, as the school re-opens as a charter school.
Marja will keep helping others, no matter how big the school gets. She mentors young people from her church, babysits former student’s children and still tutors at the Hope.
|Majra leading a walk for the homeless|
“I really want to continue to be active in those kinds of ways, to be connected with striving people. It’s always been satisfying me with people who are pushing forward. I don’t think I’ll ever retire to a rocking chair.”
Marja will give the commencement speech at graduation in a few weeks. She is taking the task seriously, hoping that her words can reach a few graduates, which is nerve-racking for her despite how many lives she has already changed through her 30 year journey with Academy of Hope.
While asking about her future, Marja reflected on the Hope’s future beyond the physical growth. Her statement speaks for itself and will help guide the staff, students and volunteers as many transitions take place over the next few months.
“I hope that Academy of Hope will be a learning community that will not leave people behind but where both teachers and students will be encouraged to discover their gifts and put them to use.”
Friday, May 9, 2014
El Salvador child coffee worker starts specialty coffee roasting business in Washington, DC called Cafe Los Suenos (Coffee of Dreams)
Mary Willson, Communication Intern
“The civil war was going on because the income inequality. The coffee plantation owners were making so much money and they were paying us only a couple cents.”
“The civil war was going on because the income inequality. The coffee plantation owners were making so much money and they were paying us only a couple cents.”
Carlos Payes started working for a coffee plantation when he was eight years old in rural El Salvador. In the midst of a violent civil war, he spent his days digging small holes in the harsh sun for twelve hours, making less than three dollars a day.
He reflects on the way of life in El Salvador while sitting with me in the tutoring space of Academy of Hope.. The juxtaposition between the pictures he is painting of his childhood to his modern life is striking.
|Carlos demonstrates coffee|
roasting at Academy of Hope
The clean cut man in a collared shirt sitting in front of me explaining his fair trade coffee business came to the United States nine years ago with not a dime in his pocket and not a word of English. He lived as his ancestors did a century ago with little change, in a village of five huts with no running water or electricity.
Escaping harsh conditions in EL Salvador is only the beginning of his story.
He dreamed of starting his own coffee business since he started working at the plantation. It seemed out of reach. “We didn’t have any money, any opportunities, not even a coffee plant other than one we kept in the house.”
He came to the US looking for a better economic situation. He started his new life in California before he heard of a thriving restaurant scene in DC, he moved and worked as a bus boy. “From the moment I came here, I started saving money. I thought it was impossible.”
Carlos finished high school in El Salvador, the first one is family to complete the task. His father saved two out of the three dollars he earned a day to make sure his son has a future beyond the coffee fields. Upon moving to the US, he wanted to continue his education and get his college business degree and needed American credentials. For three years, he studied English five days a week at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, a school for adult immigrants in DC. The he decided to pursue his GED to give him the credentials he needed to enter college. After completing his GED he found Academy of Hope's Bridge Program which helps adult learners get ready for rigorous college coursework. Carlos is now pursuing his associate's degree in business administration at the University of District Columbia Community College.
He saved enough money to buy 16 acres of land in El Salvador near his family, who planted Arabica trees, a variety of specialty coffee plants.
Café Los Suenos (Coffee of Dreams) was started.
“That is one of my greatest, greatest dreams and accomplishments that I have ever done.”
Carlos and his wife, Elizabeth met while working waiting tables at Busboys and Poets, a popular café restaurant. They jumped into their business plan head first traveling to Boston and NYC for coffee shows, meeting other coffee owners, importers and exporters and researching coffee roasting processes. Carlos became a certified roaster through the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe. “I thought it was simple, but it involves more than that.” The couple hired a coffee roasting teacher to travel from Arizona to train Carlos in the art of roasting specialty coffee.
While his business is growing in the US, Carlos is most proud of the impact he has on his family back home. With his success, he gives them opportunities. He funded his sister to go to hair school, another family member to open up a snack stand and his parents cottage has been renovated. And, with the land he bought, this family can harvest the coffee beans to sell to local exporters.
Right now, Carlos sells his roasted beans to friends and family. He is starting to sell at farmers markets this summer.
Even with the small size of Café Los Suenos, Carlos and Elizabeth are already saving 5% of profits, which will go to projects in El Salvador to combat the lack of education, food and income. “We will increase the percentage when we are making more. As long as we have enough to get by, that is all we need.”
I asked Carlos how he persevered through hard times to get his company going.
|Carlos posing at Academy of Hope|
“Sometimes [your dream] won’t happen the way you plan it, but it is all going towards the same goal in the long run. Even if you work slow but steady, sometime you’re going to get there. ”
Carlos tells me that he was terrified of talking to potential customers at first because his English was new and he had no prior business experience. He felt the same way about started classes at Academy of Hope, fearful of the culture and language.
“Education is like getting a set of tools. They put you through all the process right in front of you. And it’s up to you to do your part and take it and move on.”
Carlos and his wife hold customer meet-and-greets at their home called “Sunday Salon”. Friends and acquaintances come together to taste coffee, talk and enjoy community.
He reflects on his days back in El Salvador, where everyday sounds like a “Sunday Salon”. “Because I grew up in a community, very small, 5 houses, middle of nowhere, we were family. It is nice when you know each other and its even better if you sit down and have a little talk and a little coffee and share stories.”
For Carlos, his journey to the US has led to a company that connects him right back to home. His dreams, are made of coffee.
To contact Carlos about buying his coffee or finding him at the Georgetown farmers market, email him at Cafelossuenos@gmail.com or call him at 202-281-7512.You can also find him on Facebook at Facebook.com/CafeLosSuenos.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Note from the editor: This post was written by Kathryn Baer posted originally on her blog, Poverty and Policy. She is a policy research and communications consultant. She blogs to educate her readers on policies in order to reduce hardships of people suffering from poverty. Her blog is great one to follow!
“We have jobs and we have people,” says DC Appleseed’s Deputy Director. “But the education people have doesn’t fit the jobs available.” The real problem, however, as she goes on to suggest, is the education that many people don’t have.
This isn’t a rerun of the oft-debunked skills gap myth — at least so far as the District of Columbia is concerned. The extraordinarily high high unemployment rates in the poorer parts of the city apparently reflect a lack of minimal education credentials — and skills they’re supposed to indicate.
About 60,000 residents 18 years and older lack a high school diploma or the equivalent. An even larger number “likely lack the basic … skills needed to succeed in training, postsecondary education and the workforce,” according to a new DC Appleseed report.
Of the deplorably few adults in programs supported by funds the Office of the State Superintendent of Education administers, more than half who weren’t learning English as a second language have consistently tested below 6th grade level.
This means they’re ineligible for any of the programs the Department of Employment Services makes available through an Individual Training Account and also for most of the programs offered by our local community college.
Even residents who test higher often fail the GED exams. Their pass rate in 2012 was 55.2% — the third lowest in the country. And the exams got tougher this year.
Yet more than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require some postsecondary education by 2020, according to the latest projectionsby experts at Georgetown University.
In short, as things stand now, we’re looking at a very large number of working-age residents whose chances of full-time, living-wage jobs are dismal.
And as if that weren’t enough, we’ve research indicating links between parents’ education (or lack of same) and their children’s success in school. On the downside, children whose parents are functionally illiterate are twice as likely to be illiterate themselves.
This isn’t only because poverty rates are highest among adults without a high school diploma or GED — well over 33% in the District for those 25 and older. But all the daily impacts of poverty, e.g., hunger, homelessness, stress, obviously play a part.
Plowing more money into the rest of the education system, as the Mayor proposes, won’t deliver the hoped-for bang for the buck if the basic education needs of parents are neglected, as DC Learns warnedseveral years ago.
DC Appleseed’s report identifies a range of problems in the District’s approach to adult education — including, but not limited to inadequate funding.
It outlines steps toward a long-range solution — essentially, an integrated system that connects basic skills development to career pathways. The DC Council could lay the groundwork with the initial $2.5 million the report recommends.
But the Council should also increase funding for the adult education programs we have now — both to serve more residents and to support better results.
I wish I could tell you what the Mayor’s budget proposes. But it’s characteristically opaque — partly, but not entirely because of the fragmentation DC Appleseed documents.
This much I’ve been able to parse.
The handful of charter schools that provide adult education would getmore per pupil, as would the two regular public schools that do.
They’d still get less per pupil than what schools would get for any other type of student. And the new extra weight that’s supposed to boost funds for schools with students who’ve been designated “at risk” won’t apply, though some of the adults surely meet the same criteria, e.g., eligibility for SNAP (food stamp) benefits.
OSSE would get less for the adult education grants it provides. Theproposed budget indicates a cut of about $3.8 million. This apparently reflects the fact that the Department of Employment Services won’t be transferring funds, as it did this fiscal year.
The Fair Budget Coalition had recommended that the baseline budgetfor adult education, i.e., the estimated costs of preserving current services, include these funds — a $5.5 million addition, according to FBC.
Hard to believe that the Mayor and his people couldn’t have found the money. They’ve instead put $3 million for adult literacy on the list of items to be funded if revenues prove higher than projected.
Let’s just say this is a mere gesture, since it would take $59.8 million to fund the priorities ranked higher. Setting this pie-in-the-sky aside, the total requested for all the programs that, in one way or the other, address the adult basic skills deficit might serve more residents than in Fiscal 2013.
But they then served at most about 8,000, according to DC Appleseed. That’s a far cry from meeting the need.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Informing, motivating, and advocating.These three verbs were used very widely last week at The Hope.
Education at The Academy of Hope is broader than a passing grade or even the GED certificate. It is the power to make a difference in all facets of life including in the community, and at the polls. With the mayoral election in full swing, The Hope staff wanted to put on an event in order to empower students to learn about the issues that affect their lives and the DC neighborhoods in which they live and work.
There is an overwhelming sense of economic and structural inequality for DC residents. Learning about the issues behind these feelings is empowering for students.
“It’s a validation of discomfort that they feel, and there are real issues behind those emotions that their peers feel too,” Meghan, a social studies instructor and organizer of the event explained. “You’re saying ‘you’re right’. And that’s powerful. We're showing that there is a way for people to be engaged and to change the conditions they’re in.”
| Students proudly pose stating what issue|
the care about the most
Students gained mayoral candidate trading cards for each station, and classes competed with others for involvement. Student’s even presented mayoral informational posters at one station, and led the discussion.
“They just did such a good job. They were the ones presenting and teaching,” Brittany, lead instructor said. “That’s one of the goals of Academy of Hope.”
Mayor Gray check out a station where
students matched up the different branches
of the government
The original idea sprouted from the Social Studies curriculum. Starting in January, students started learning about the three branches of government, the Senate, House and Congress work to pass laws. As the mayoral election campaigning ramped up in March, the idea to educate all of The Hope community about the topics involved with this election became the main focus.
“We wanted to have students motivated to vote and to be informed about issues and candidates,” Meghan said. “My dream was exactly what happened. All the students were getting involved in something that was really fun and interesting to them. The work that we did together planning all the rooms turned out great.”
The teachers noticed as they started teaching the political curriculum, there was a lack of connection between big-sector issues and their own lives.This event aimed at connecting the political system and personal lives of students.
|Director Lecsester greets Mayor Gray|
“I think our objective was giving people information about how to get out the vote. Showing why it’s important to get informed, so even if no one went out and voted about this I’d be fine, as long as they were informed. Even that is a decision.” Meghan said.
The students saw truly how much their voice can be heard because the current Mayor (as of last week), Vincent Gray made a special appearance. He, and his camera crew, walked to all the stations, socializing with The Hope students and staff. One comedic moment was when he checked out a poster that was made about his political platform by a social studies class student. He stared at it very seriously before walking to the next classroom.
After his visit full of shaking hands, posing for pictures and learning about The Hope’s curriculum and Advocacy Celebration, he entered his vote into the straw poll. He voted for himself.
For next year, Meghan wants to add a station where students can learn about all the positive changes that are being made because of citizens staying informed and standing up for issues that affect them.
“People feel tension and a lack of power in the system, this event helps gives them a voice. There is progress, it’s just buried behind all the bad news.”
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
This post was originally written for DC Alliance of Youth Advoactes: DCAYA on their blog, Youth Friendly DC by The Hope's Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy, Patricia DeFerrari.
Whitney is an unassuming, quiet but friendly young woman who, like her peers, has earplugs in her ears more often than not. But don’t be fooled by her appearances. She is a very determined young woman. She is not yet 19 years old, but she is already a mother, working hard to move from transitional housing and dependence on TANF assistance to employment that will allow her to provide for herself and her child. She earned her GED last September, but she knows to get a job that pays enough to sustain her and her child, she needs college and/or a postsecondary credential. That’s why she’s enrolled in bridge-to-college classes at Academy of Hope.
When Whitney first enrolled at Academy of Hope, she was part of a DOES-funded GED program for youth that included a transportation stipend. For Whitney, this meant that she could take the Metro from her transitional housing in South East DC to Edgewood Terrace near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro, where Academy of Hope’s Strive for Success classes were held. It took about 45 minutes and cost between $2.05 and $4.10 each way. The cost, of course, depended on the time of day she traveled (peak times to get to school, non-peak to get back home) and whether she took a bus to school from the Rhode Island Metro or chose to take the 10-minute walk. When funding for transportation stipends ended, Whitney’s commute to school became both a financial burden and a larger time commitment. In order to save money, Whitney no longer rides the Metro. She takes a couple of buses and spends more than an hour traveling each way. The trip costs $1.60 each way, which amounts to $3.20 a day, $12.80 for the four days of class a week and $16.00 a week if she comes in for tutoring on Friday. The extra 15-20 minutes commuting each way adds more than a couple of hours a week.
To those of us with salaried jobs, whether middle wages or high end, $16 a week doesn’t sound like all that much money, but put it in context. $16 a week is $48 a month. Whitney’s total income for the month is $336, which she receives through TANF. A third of that goes to rent at the transitional house where she is living. That leaves $216 for everything else, including food, diapers for the baby, clothing, personal hygiene, transportation, etc. for the month. Whitney feels lucky because she’s healthy and her baby’s healthy, so she doesn’t have to decide between medicine and transportation. She is determined to get the education she needs for a better life for herself and her daughter.
There are other students who don’t have even the minimal income of TANF or supportive housing who struggle to meet their basic needs, who live even farther away from school or have more family members dependent on them. These students end up dropping out of school because they simply cannot win the battle of showing up to class. Providing assistance, such as a transportation stipend or extending Kids Ride Free, will break down a major barrier that prevents non-traditional students, such as Whitney, from breaking the cycle of poverty. Whitney is making the commitment to show up to class and better her situation. Now it's the city's turn to ease Whitney's ride to school so she may continue changing her life not only for herself, but for child.
Patricia DeFerrari is the Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Academy of Hope. Patricia works to ensure DC is a more equitable and prosperous city by speaking up for adults with low literacy.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Loucace Ampe is far away from her roots in West Africa but found “home” at The Hope. Eighteen years ago she moved to the United States from the Ivory Coast. When she left Africa, she left school behind.
Her primary language is French and she learned English on-the-go when she came to DC, through soap operas like “Days of Our Lives”.
Continuing her education was always on her mind after moving to DC, although the challenges of getting loans for school and the pressures of work kept her from fulfilling her education. “I just put my education on the back burner,” she commented.
Then, her two children and a husband made time fly by. Nearly two decades passed until Loucace finally took the courageous step to continue her education. She and a close friend decided together it was time but didn't know where to start. So like so many who are looking for information, they looked online and stumbled upon The Hope’s program.
“The Academy of Hope is like coming home to me because when you are home you feel comfortable. There are no barriers, all your mindset and fears, your doubts, everything you have to put it down. When you come here you put it all down,” she said.
In just a year and a half Loucace conquered the General Education Development (GED), and graduated at The Hope’s May ceremony.
“I was challenged with math because how fractions are done there and here are different,” she said about her first months at The Hope. “I didn't think I would learn that much after [not being in school] for 18 years, and I didn't think that everything would rush back to me. But the people here were tremendous help to me.”
While it was always in her heart to go to college, it became even more important when her two children started school. She has an eight and eleven year old, and she wanted to be able to help them with their homework.
“My 11 year old wants to be a biologist, he loves science. And my little one is a complete artist, he has multiple facets; he can sing, he can read, he is everywhere, so I really don’t know what he will do. He is very creative.”
When Loucace was working on algebra, her son was as well. They would do their homework together at the kitchen table. “We would help each other.”
But at first, she wasn't excited about her education like she is now, two years later.
“At the beginning I was feeling really bad, ‘I was like man look at me at this age, going to college at his age, what am I going to tell my kids?”
“So I got stuck in that mentality for a while. I didn't even tell them I was going to school. But after my mentor talked to me and I saw adults in the college with me I thought ‘wow this is amazing, I’m not alone, why should I feel bad?’”
Her kids were supportive when she opened up to them, came to her graduation and are now cheering her on at college. Loucace’s husband is a doctorate in ministry and has been her backbone through her education journey thus far. And it isn't done.
She is currently at University of the District of Columbia (UDC) starting her bachelors degree. She hasn't decided yet what she will major in but she is interested in working with people and computers.
Not only is she taking five classes right now, juggling work and family…she also won a scholarship that helps her with tuition.
While Louace loves being at UDC, she says she misses coming to The Hope.
“The lady at the front desk the first day had a huge smile on her face; she still has the same attitude. She smiles every day. It’s amazing. The teaching material is awesome. It covers everything from one plus one to how to open a bank account… what else could you ask for?”
“I mean, like I said, coming back here is like coming home.”
When Louace was asked what she would tell other students who are going back to school, she said “it's never too late and I really thank God for all of [The Hope staff]. I wish I could help all your wishes to come true like you made mine,” she said with a smile.