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Milwaukee Achievers helps improve literacy, job skills

April 14, 2010

For a literacy organization, it's definitely a coup to have the author of a business, human resource, training and development book as a volunteer. Especially one that has served on school boards and non-profit organizations for more than 15 years.

"Literacy is very important to me," Mequon resident Kavita Gupta said. "I joined the Strategic Marketing Committee because I felt that would be a good fit and interesting to work on."

Gupta is working to "get the word out" about Milwaukee Achiever, a literacy services and workforce development group serving the Milwaukee area helping adults with basic education, preparation for the GED test and citizenship skills.

"There's just this huge need in Milwaukee," Gupta said. "I just really feel badly … there are so many people without jobs."

More students than volunteers

Milwaukee Achiever, founded in 1983 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the School Sisters of St. Francis and the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, helps about 1,600 adults each year get the skills they need to secure employment or just to survive.

They learn those skills at two Milwaukee base sites, the Pierce Center, 1512 W. Pierce St., and the Silver Spring Center, 5566 N. 69th St., as well as four satellite sites through partnerships with Welfare to Work, the Housing Authority in the city of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board.

Claudia Scholl, communications and marketing coordinator for Milwaukee Achiever, said that approximately 157,000 of the 600,000 people in Milwaukee have low literacy skills. So the 1,600 adults are only a small portion of the many people who need help.

"We have more students than we have volunteers," Gupta said. "I'm trying my best in the community, talking to moms, to people I know to tell them about the big need. … Many of us are really fortunate to be living well."

It is an increase in joblessness and the current recession that has caused Milwaukee Achiever to see an increase in adult learners and a shift in the kinds of learners, Executive Director Peg Palmer said.

The current roster of 263 volunteers can't keep up with the demand, as Gupta said, and about 40 adults are on a waiting list in need of a tutor.

"One of the things that is tough for us when we have to waitlist those people is we're meeting them at that moment where they have the desire to overcome some barrier to advancing, and we don't want to put that on hold if we can avoid it," Scholl said.

People from all walks of life

Volunteer and Sister Marie Le Clerc Laux of School Sisters of Notre Dame said there is a misconception about the types of people seeking Milwaukee Achiever's services.

"They come from all different areas," she said, adding that they have seen immigrants from 27 countries who need helping learning the English language.

Some have had a formal education in their home country while others do not even know how to read or write their native language.

"I think one of the wonderful things about Achiever is the flexibility of the program," said Sister Arline Jaeger, another School Sister volunteer. "It can be adapted to the needs of almost anyone who walks in the door."

In the past year, Palmer said the organization has seen many adults who were working in a job for more than 20 years and then lost it because of the economy.

"We're seeing more and more people who managed to keep a job and to support themselves and their families with the very low level skills that they had," Palmer said. "But now … it's so much more competitive."

That's one of the reasons the center also offers computer training in Microsoft Office programs, the Internet and e-mail, because even someone with a high school diploma may have never had computer classes during formal schooling.

They also have partnerships with companies, like Cargill, to help give workers the skills in math or language that they need to advance in the company.

Training helps tutors

While the School Sisters have a background in education, volunteers don't have to be teachers to tutor others.

"They were very good about orientation," said West Allis resident Ruth Morrison, who has been a tutor since August 2009 after retiring. "They were very good about helping me so I felt comfortable."

Laux added that the training session helps new volunteers understand what is needed and books to use with the learners. Plus, the staff members are there to answer any questions.

Laux and Morrison said they have developed friendships with their learners through their support and just listening to their needs.

"When people come in, their self-esteem is very, very low," Palmer said. "They already are embarrassed … and they come in here, and it has taken a lot of courage to get in there … so we really try to welcome them."

'Life changing experience'

Gupta said volunteering with Milwaukee Achiever can be a great opportunity for retirees or stay-at-home-moms whose children are grown or in school during the day.

"(Our volunteers) understand that this is a relationship between equals," Scholl said. "It's a life changing experience on both ends."

The need in Milwaukee is great, and it may seem like an insurmountable feat to make a difference.

But Gupta is working hard to make the case for those who are unable to advocate for themselves since they lack those basic skills. She's reaching out to corporations and other groups to help fund the work of Milwaukee Achiever - and, in the process, hopefully find another volunteer or two.

"When you live in the suburbs, many people aren't aware of what's going on," Gupta said. "They are totally unaware."

At a glance

Milwaukee Achiever offers the following services for adult learners:

• adult basic education: grade levels 1 to 6

• General Educational Development (GED): grade levels 7 to 12

• assessment: testing to determine competency and evaluation of workplace skills

• bilingual medical interpreter training: anatomy and medical terminology

• bilingual legal interpreter training: legal terminology

• career exploration: assistance for job seekers

• citizenship skills: tutoring to prepare for testing to become a U.S. citizen

• college and business preparatory writing skills: instruction in business writing standards

• computer literacy: basic, intermediate and advanced training in software and the Internet

• English language learners: understand, speak, read and write the English language

• Joblink: industry-specific training in partnership with businesses

• job readiness training: workplace expectations

• pre-vocational training: skills to enter apprenticeship or other job training programs

FYI

Milwaukee Achiever is in need of volunteers to help meet the demand for tutoring services. Previous teaching experience is not necessary and training will be provided. To volunteer or learn more about the program, call (414) 643-5108 or visit milwaukeeachiever.org.

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