St. John’s Literacy Ministry Team

By Kate Ericsson

On August 15, 2021, as the Afghan capital fell in a matter of hours, the world watched in disbelief. The evacuation operations were one of the largest airlifts in history. Between August 14 and 25, the US evacuated about 82,300 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport. The tragic images from Kabul brought the plight of refugees to our forefront and compelled us to take action.

Last September, Christine Mortlock, Minister for Children, Families, and Lifelong Formation, asked me to lead a literacy ministry in partnership with Blue Ridge Literacy. Christine has been involved with the organization as a volunteer for several years. Christine had first learned of the organization from Gates DeHart, a long time BRL volunteer, in an Education for Ministry group they were in together. Christine and I set up a training day with Sara Geres, Program Director at Blue Ridge Literacy, a non-profit whose mission is to support achievement of life goals by providing opportunities to strengthen literacy skills to adults in western Virginia. We specifically asked to be matched with refugees.

Our tutor training was held at the church on Sunday, October 24, and led by Executive Director Ahoo Salem and Sara. Attendees learned about the organization and our roles as tutors. We committed to tutoring at least two hours per week for six months and creating lesson plans focusing on the learner’s unique goals and interests. We participated in hands-on learning activities that simulated the challenges of decoding a foreign language and purchased our literacy materials. We decided to meet bi-monthly to report on our experiences with the team and brainstorm any challenges. At our first meeting in January, our team shared the following:

Allison Blanton is waiting to be matched with someone who needs conversation practice.

Julie Boxley is working with a woman from Afghanistan who does not speak English. Her husband brings her to her meetings at the Raleigh Court branch library since she does not drive. Julie is using the literacy materials from BRL for a level 1 language learner. Her learner knows the alphabet and can read simple passages without comprehension. Julie begins her sessions with introductions on notecards. Julie uses pictures of common objects to build her learner's vocabulary and focuses on word study and memorizing sight words.

Molly is working with a Haitian woman who is a proficient speaker and was a middle school teacher in Haiti for 20 years. Molly helped her learner write a resume, and her learner is currently seeking a childcare position in the Salem area.

Regan Clark is working with a woman from Afghanistan, whose literacy goal is to prepare for the Virginia Western placement test. Since her learner will have to write an essay, Regan has been practicing with writing prompts and the writing process. She located some online grammar programs that she can do on her own time. Regan gave her a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird to read on her own and discuss together.
John Garst tutored a man from Afghanistan. His learner's primary goal is to bring his family to the US but he also wants to navigate the ins and outs of job searching, paying taxes, and getting a driver’s license. John incorporated cultural immersion, teaching him about the US Constitution, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among other things. The Garst family welcomed John's learner to their home for Thanksgiving dinner. Since his learner has relocated to New York, John will be matched with another language learner.

Christine Mortlock is working with a woman from Iraq in all areas of language study. Christine integrates word study, writing, reading, and conversation. They have recently been working on r-controlled vowels. Her learner works in food services at Carilion and has a daughter who will be applying to college next year. Her learner is interested in learning about scholarship opportunities for her daughter. Christine's learner hopes to go to college and buy a home.

Sarah Pendergraph is working with a learner from Liberia with her conversation skills and English articulation. Sarah would like to help her secure a home health aid position. Sarah's learner holds a NJ license but not a VA one.

Fiona Tower is working with a learner from South Korea. Her learner has lived in the US since 1978. She is a fluent speaker whose literacy goal is to improve her computer skills. Fiona is using the BRL computer program called Northstar. Together they are working through the program, and she is improving her keyboarding skills.

I am working with a learner from Afghanistan. My learner was separated from her husband and son at the airport when they were trying to evacuate as a family. She and her daughter were the only ones to make it onto the plane. My learner receives services from Commonwealth Catholic Charities. Her main literacy goals are to improve her conversation skills and secure a job, the latter recently achieved. A trained midwife in Kabul, my learner was offered a job as a nursing assistant at Carilion and completed training as a certified nursing assistant. Her daughter is enrolled in kindergarten at Virginia Heights. In our tutoring sessions, we spend time reading from passages on her grade level and studying idioms. We also talk about and brainstorm solutions for the challenges she faces as she navigates life in a new country: opening a bank account, getting a driver’s license, making a doctor's appointment, getting COVID vaccinations, etc.

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