Friday, May 16, 2014

A Call, A Community and a Commencement Speech: The Story of Academy of Hope

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.” 

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