Kay Samuelson currently serves as a Computer Literacy / Job Readiness ESL Instructor with The Opening Word Program on Long Island. She lives at St. Hugh’s Convent in Huntington Station, NY where she shares community with four Amityville Dominican Sisters and fellow volunteer Angela Chiappone.
Before I entered life as a Dominican Volunteer, my Catholic education was reduced to what I had learned in History of Christianity general requirements, been told by my Southern Baptist friends, and picked up in my readings of Saint Hildegard. Mystic, botanist, and all around empowered woman, Hildegard’s work called to me in my years as an undergrad. I found myself returning to her words in my first weeks as a volunteer. A single quote stood out to me as I contemplated my purpose in ministry: “We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.”
The Opening Word Literacy Program aims to unlock the language ability of immigrant women, providing them the key to future empowerment. My ministry position is to travel between all three of The Opening Word schools (Amityville, Huntington Station, and Wyandanch) to provide the students computer, technology, and job readiness classes. As a mild perfectionist and Type A worker, I entered into this ministry with structured lesson plans, regimented worksheets, and sharpened pencils at the ready. By God, I was prepared to enrich and educate; my purpose was clear – gifting female empowerment. Little did I know, the women of The Opening Word, my 90 students hailing from El Salvador, Haiti, Turkey, Jordan, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and elsewhere, would be the ones to give me my voice, to show me my own light.
The education program at all three schools focuses on holistic approach: addressing the needs of the individual, so they may be at their very best, so they may reach their goals. This has privileged me to one-on-one time with the women and this is what broke down my strict barriers of what I thought it meant to be a teacher. I discovered that my students have become my ray of shining light. In our pedestrian encounters, those moments outside of lesson plans, with pencils down, is where the most profound education happens. My El Salvadorian mothers have taken me on as their own kin, asking about grad school applications and giving me relationship advice in broken English (“If he is good, be good to him. But know that you are good too”). I help conversationally with their sentence structure so they may communicate their stories of migration, loss, and growth. My young Turkish and Afghani students educate me on where to find the local mosque, Arabic cultural differences, and how to compliment the other women in their native tongue (“Shaista di mashallah!”). We scour job search engines and community college registrars during breaks to find their options for next year. The education is specialized and special to all who encounter these driven yet loving women.
|The St. Hugh of Lincoln Community celebrates Halloween!|
I was unaware, as a Mid-West redhead who had only ever heard Spanish on television, of the true realities of our immigrant sisters and brothers. I was unaware of the radical work being done by American Catholics to help those men and women who simply want to take part in this national dream, to earn a living for themselves and their children and to give back to the communities surrounding them. The women of The Opening Word truly embody Hildegard’s message and can act as an example for all of us: Catholic, black, American, straight, Korean, trans, Pagan, white… whatever! You must first take back your own listening, open your heart and mind to the knowledge others have to give. Then, use your own voice to give compassion to others. Finally, see your own light - know that a small act, something as simple as a conversation between classes, can change a life.
For more information about The Opening Word Program, please visit our website; http://www.openingword.org/
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This post originally appeared on the Dominican Volunteers USA blog, Disputatio.