Dominican Literacy Center Founder: need for program greater now

Sr. Kathleen RyanEvents / Fundraisers, Press

Thank you to Denise Crosby, who wrote about the DLC celebrating it’s 25th year in the Beacon News.  If you missed the article in the paper, click here for the digital edition.

Otherwise, here is the story below.

It may have been providence that planted the seed. But it was a 1993 Charles Kuralt TV program about two nuns helping adults learn to read that motivated Sister Kathleen Ryan to create the Dominican Literacy Center in Aurora.

Like most things in life, it was all about timing.

Ryan, a long-time school principal and education administrator in the Chicago area, happened to be subbing for a fourth-grade teacher on maternity leave at St. Peter School in Aurora when she saw the show. Plus, Congress had just released the National Adult Literacy Survey, and thanks to an appropriation bill passed a few years earlier, the Illinois Secretary of State’s office was offering one-time grants for literacy projects in the state.

Although she initially planned to start such a program in her hometown of Chicago, after talking to local pastors and social workers, Ryan realized there “was such a great need” for a center right here in Aurora.

The determined nun was initially turned down, however, because at the time she began applying for money, she only had five students, including a 75-year-old woman who wanted to learn to read so she could use shopping lists and be able to sing along in church.

But persistence paid off … as did lots of practice writing “grant after grant after grant.” And by the time Ryan secured $20,000 in funding and officially opened the Dominican Literacy Center in the basement of St. Nicholas Church, she had a total of nine students for the afternoon and evening classes, with another three on a waiting list.

Today, as the Dominican Literacy Center prepares to throw a big outdoor party Oct. 14 to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the walls of its house at 271 N. Farnsworth Ave. are bulging. There are 160 volunteers currently working with 180 students — the largest start-up class to date — and another 80 on a waiting list that, unfortunately without more tutors, can stretch as long as three years.

Looking back, it’s no wonder Ryan is proud of this program that has taught more than 2,800 “mostly women” to read, write and speak English, and put another thousand men and women on the path to citizenship.

In addition, she noted, the literacy center has also served as a model and helped start up smaller programs, locally and in other states.

“Immigration is immigration,” Ryan told me when I asked about the ups and downs of working with such a controversial issue. And while there will always be “joys, pains and struggles when people come to a new country,” she’s seen plenty of change in the years since she began this center.

Contrary to what many people believe, Ryan insists that today’s immigrants — the vast majority of whom are from Central and South America — are trying harder to assimilate into our country than those of European descent back when her own grandmother arrived in America.

“We see it and hear it over and over,” she said of the many immigrants she’s worked with over the decades. “They want to do better than their parents. They are eager to learn the language, mostly to be able to help their children in school” — which, in turn, will give their kids a far better shot at a good life.

“And as a result,” Ryan added, “they are succeeding a whole generation sooner.”

Unfortunately, there has been no comprehensive immigration reform since she started the center a quarter of a century ago — which Ryan blames on the fact this issue has become such a “political football” for both Republicans and Democrats.

“They are willing to apply, to even pay exorbitant fees,” she said of the many residents here without legal status who are working hard and raising families here in the Fox Valley. “But most of them are not permitted to even apply because of the laws. If they are here on a visa and overstay it, unless they marry a citizen or are sponsored by close family, they have no options.”

The change that concerns her most is the fear being stoked by political rhetoric, much of it groundless. But she remains hopeful, convinced this toxic climate won’t last forever.

“We are a country of immigrants,” Ryan said. “And even though that identity is under attack, we will survive it.”

Which means the need for the literacy center and others like it will “go on and on,” she added.

And that’s why, as she prepares for the big Oct. 14 party for students, volunteers, supporters and their families at the center on Farnsworth Avenue, Ryan doesn’t hesitate to put a call out for more tutors.

After all, she said, they are the backbone of this program, and the reason for its success.

“I not only believe in the students,” Ryan said, “but also in the volunteers who are all giving their time and effort to help these women learn.”

Twitter @dencrosby

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