Notre Dame sisters help entry-level employees, immigrants climb career ladder

April 1, 2012

At 42, Joana Kusi says she is thrilled to finally be a student.

At 74, Sr. Roberta Giampaoli, SND, is equally happy to be her tutor.

The two women were brought together through the Notre Dame Educational Bridge Center in Worcester, Mass., which offers adult basic education programs to employees of three of Covenant Health Systems affiliates in Worcester: Notre Dame Long Term Care Center, Notre Dame duLac Assisted Living and Notre Dame Hospice, as well as several area health care facilities belonging to a coalition called the Intercare Alliance.

Kusi, a Ghana native, works as a certified nursing assistant at Notre Dame Long Term Care Center. Sr. Giampaoli, a retired teacher, is a resident of Notre Dame duLac Assisted Living. For almost three years now, Sr. Giampaoli has been reinforcing the lessons Kusi has studied in an "English for the Workplace" class at the Bridge Center with personalized reading, writing and pronunciation instruction three times a week.

And it's been a win-win situation for both of them, they say.

"In Africa, I only went to school for five years. After that, my father died. There was no money for education, and my mother needed me to help at home," says Kusi. "When I came to America and Notre Dame four years ago, I didn't know English, and I thought it was too late for me to have opportunities in life. But thanks to the Bridge Center and Sr. Giampaoli, now I am learning a lot, and I know I can do something with my future."

Sr. Giampaoli says tutoring has given her a new lease on life as well. "I taught elementary and high school students for 40 years. I'm in assisted living now because of mobility issues, but that doesn't mean I want to just sit in my apartment all day and read," she says.

"Tutoring Joana, who is so enthusiastic, and watching her progress is a wonderful way for me to continue to fulfill our mission of helping people to improve themselves through education," says Sr. Giampaoli.

Of course, English for the Workplace is only one of many classes offered through the Bridge Center. In fact, one of the main impetuses for beginning the center in 2004 was to address a nursing shortage by partnering with nearby Quinsigamond Community College to offer an evening LPN program for the Notre Dame and Intercare Alliance facilities' employees, complete with prerequisite offerings in biology, math and psychology.

The center offers tuition reimbursement for most Notre Dame employees. The curriculum has grown to include computer classes, career counseling, and, as a spin-off of the English curriculum, the Sr. Helen Wright Citizenship Program, named after a current resident of Notre Dame Long Term Care Center who, as a member of the Bridge Center Advisory Board, proposed the idea for the citizenship preparation in 2007 and continues to support it.

"Our motto is: 'If you take good care of your employees, they, in turn, will take good care of your residents,'" says Patricia Campbell, director of the Bridge Center. "We are very proud of the accomplishments of our students. More than 160 have graduated from our LPN program, and 70 percent of them still work at Intercare Alliance facilities. In conjunction with Quinsigamond, 14 have gone through the RN program. And to date, 28 of our citizenship students have become citizens, and several more are currently working with tutors or awaiting naturalization interviews."

In an area with a growing population of immigrants, however, it is the English language program that has garnered much of the current attention at the Bridge Center. The largest proportion of students have been Portuguese speakers from Brazil, says teacher Nancy Lemerise, though class members also hail from Spanish-speaking countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic as well as India, Kenya, Liberia and Ghana.

Begun in 2005 under a Massachusetts Extended Care Career Ladder Initiative grant, the English for the Workplace program is offered in three sessions of 12 to 14 weeks each year. Language proficiency, which can take up to seven years, is encouraged with classes that cover relevant topics like job-related vocabulary, grocery shopping, weather, safety signs and symbols, health and safety, holidays and more.

"I try to tailor classes around students' needs rather than following a standard curriculum," says Lemerise. "Some people come here with very little education; others have college degrees. I reward individual growth and try to promote self-confidence rather than class competition."

Equally important to the success of English learners is the one-on-one tutoring program, which pairs students with a dozen Notre Dame Sisters currently living at Notre Dame duLac Assisted Living. They volunteer to provide additional remediation or, in the case of employees who cannot attend class because of scheduling problems, primary language literacy lessons.

Recently, the program was one of 18 businesses recognized through an "English Works Campaign," for partnership between the government and nonprofit sector to offer immigrant workers the chance to learn English. The English Works Campaign is led by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

"This is a good news story: how business working cooperatively with government is creating opportunities to realize the American Dream," said Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray. "It's good for business; it's good for workers; it's good for the Commonwealth; and it's good for us as a community."

Campbell couldn't agree more.

"We are named the Bridge Center because we are helping people bridge from where they are today to a better future," she says. "We are committed to empowering our employees, and hope to expand our offerings in the future to include classes for employees' family members as well as our greater community."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.