Polishing the welcome wagon

Teacher sends out ethnic community 'ambassadors'

Email|Print| Text size + By Victoria Cheng
Globe Correspondent / November 11, 2007

A colorful sign greets visitors in the entryway of the adult Community Learning Center in Central Square: Irrashai. Benvenuto. Swagat Cha.

In more than 30 languages, from Arabic to Thai, Haitian Creole to Ethiopian Amharic, the sign proclaims: Welcome.

Helping immigrants feel at home in Cambridge and educating the support agencies that serve these populations is vital for creating a citywide sense of community, said Carole Sousa, a teacher and program coordinator at the center.

To address this need, Sousa created four student-led programs that teach immigrant groups about education and health services available to them as residents of the city. But her work has caught the attention of people well beyond the city limits.

In October, the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education presented Sousa with its Teacher of the Year award.

The coalition's executive director, Kenny Tamarkin, said Sousa was chosen because "she's gone way beyond the normal scope of a teacher, recruiting students to serve as community ambassadors and turning people into assets in the community."

Sousa grew up in East Boston and spent three decades working on domestic violence programs and legislation before becoming a full-time worker in 2000 at the center, which is an arm of the city's Department of Human Service Programs.

She now oversees the four student leadership initiatives that send center students and graduates into their ethnic communities as ambassadors of information.

The idea for these programs came to Sousa as she read answers to the center's English assessment tests, administered to newcomers upon their arrival. One question asked people to name "one good thing about being here and one not-so-good thing," she said.

From the negative answers, she said, "I started to pick up that there's a lot of depression coming through this, a lot of loneliness. Coming from a country where you've got your whole community as your support system to here . . ." She trailed off. "Americans, they're isolated people. You have no one to talk to, and it's a serious problem."

Because of lingering language barriers and a lack of information, even immigrants who have lived in the United States for many years often do not take advantage of the available social and community activities, Sousa said.

To offset these trends, Sousa has sought to create programs to provide students with skills and knowledge they could "bring back into the community, to share information they're learning with their peers."

Bangladeshi native Qumrunnessa Huda is one of the program's outreach workers. A mother of four who has lived in the United States for 17 years, Huda contrasted her own adjustment to life in Cambridge with the experience a new immigrant might be able to expect now: "It was very hard. Now, I find everything and I feel like, 'Oh, my god, I didn't know that. If I had known that, I could help my family. I could use this for my children.' "

Huda often helps the women in her community find child care and employment.

"I tell them there are lots of opportunities at the Community Learning Center. You can learn English, you can take a computer class, you can get job training. And for your child or children, you can get involved in the literacy program."

When it comes to immigrant parents' participation in their children's education, "there's a myth that they're unmotivated because they never show up for meetings in their schools," Sousa said.

"But these parents are doing a lot to support their children's school success. The school may never see it, because they don't show up for a meeting where they can't understand what's being said."

Two of the four programs Sousa created focus on literacy in young children, from infants to 5-year-olds. Parents learn the benefits of reading to their children and talking to them, both in their native language and in English.

"A lot of people, when they think about adult basic education, they think about jobs," Tamarkin noted. "But adult basic ed is also important to early childhood education. I see parents as the greatest indicators of children's success that you can find."

Propheta Saint-Louis Exhilhomme, another community outreach worker, moved to North Cambridge from Haiti five years ago and currently lives in Jefferson Park. She has four children, ranging in age from 2 1/2 months to 17 years old.

She visits coin laundries, health centers, supermarkets, and schools to distribute information about the services available to families in her neighborhood.

"If I have some neighbors near me, I can give them fliers and talk to them about the importance of the information," she said. "Sometimes it's difficult for some people to read, but if you know about the services, you can explain them."

Exhilhomme's familiarity with her neighborhood enables Sousa and her colleagues to get a better idea of the community's needs and challenges, Sousa said. As in Exhilhomme's case, the program also "empowers students to be active in the community at large," she added.

Tamarkin emphasized the importance of this community involvement as well. The coalition chose Sousa for its Teacher of the Year Award "not just for her exemplary teaching," he said, but also because "a person like Carole certainly understands that adult education goes beyond the classroom."

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