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Aurora’s Dominican Literacy Center changing women’s lives through mentoring

For 25 years, one very determined nun’s program has been pairing volunteer English-speaking tutors one-on-one with women who need literacy skills. The results have been life-changing.

Staff and volunteers from the Dominican Literacy Center in Aurora present their Memorial Day Parade banner, on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Left to right: Elisa Barocio, Alison Brzezinski, Sister Jane Beckman, Dalila Alegria, Maria Dominguez, Sister Kathleen
Staff and volunteers from the Dominican Literacy Center in Aurora present their Memorial Day Parade banner, on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Left to right: Elisa Barocio, Alison Brzezinski, Sister Jane Beckman, Dalila Alegria, Maria Dominguez, Sister Kathleen Ryan, Janice Smith and Nadine Stadel.
Jon Langham/For the Sun-Times

A literacy program that’s taught 2,800 women to read, write and speak English over the past 25 years is celebrating its growth as a Dominican sister’s single-minded mission.

Sister Kathleen Ryan, who has worked in the ministry of education for 52 years, got the idea to pair volunteer English-speaking tutors one-on-one with women who needed literacy skills from a Sunday morning TV story reported by the late journalist Charles Kuralt.

Thus was born the not-for-profit Dominican Literacy Center in east Aurora, celebrating its silver anniversary this year.

“Each person — the tutor and the learner — sees the other as an equal,” Ryan said. “It’s not a teacher-child relationship. And even though a tutor is teaching, he or she is also mentoring.”

Dominican Learning Center Director Sister Kathleen Ryan reflects on the 25th anniversary of the center, on May 22, 2019, in Aurora, Illinois.
Dominican Learning Center Director Sister Kathleen Ryan reflects on the 25th anniversary of the center, on May 22, 2019, in Aurora, Illinois.
Jon Langham/For the Sun-Times

Ryan, who grew up on Addison Street about eight miles west of Wrigley Field, would know.

She started teaching first grade at age 21 after graduating from Notre Dame High School for Girls on the North Side and St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. She later earned her master’s in educational administration and supervision from St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn.

Ryan still uses her copy of the Kuralt story, which CBS-TV sent at her request, to drive home the literacy center’s mission. She used it to earn the backing of her Dominican congregation and its then-leader, Sister Rose Miriam Schulte, to start the literacy center as a self-supporting program.

Ryan wrote the first grant request for the not-for-profit center on an electric typewriter that she sat on top of a teddy bear-decorated towel so it wouldn’t scruff up her dining room table. She worked off of a pamphlet she’d been given by the Chicago-based Donors’ Forum (now called Forefront) on how to write grants.

Ryan’s first win was getting a tiny basement space at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Aurora, where she tutored two women while two others were put on a waiting list. The second student was 75 years old and a migrant worker since childhood — determined to read a grocery list and the hymns that her local Catholic Church congregation sang each Sunday.

The daughters of two of Ryan’s early students now serve on the literacy center’s 13-member Advisory Board, and tout their mothers’ experiences as changing their families’ lives, as well as driving their own career successes.

Now, the center meets in a 17-room building next to St. Therese Parish at 260 Vermont St. in Aurora. About 200 women get tutoring each year by trained tutors. The center holds 14 tutoring sessions each week and hosts twice-weekly conversation class.

The cost of books and learning materials for each tutor-student pair is $125 each school year.

The center also coordinates Citizenship Classes for men and women who are legal, permanent residents who’ve decided to apply for U.S. citizenship. Those classes are held at St. Mary’s Parish at 432 E. Dover St. in Aurora.

Last year, people from 16 countries took the classes to help them navigate the 100-question naturalization exam, which also involves the applicant being interviewed in English. Of Aurora’s 200,400 residents, 42 percent are immigrants and speak their native language as their first language, according to U.S. Census data.

The citizenship classes include real-life situations. In 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stepped up raids and searches in the area, so tutors and students now are reminded each year of their basic legal rights and are instructed how to take care when answering a knock on the door from someone unknown.

The literacy center has grown from $20,000 in grants its first year — thanks to Ryan’s trusty typewriter and research skills — to a yearly budget of $225,000. The budget comprises 45 percent grants, 50 percent donations and 5 percent from endowment interest.

The center is always seeking new tutors and funding.

But for now, you’ll see Ryan, the center’s three staffers and lots of volunteers marching to bubble music and a bubble-making machine in Aurora’s Memorial Day parade.

“We’re praying for good weather,” Ryan said.

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.