Jose Gonzalez: Westfield State University in partnership with Holyoke Early Literacy Initiative

HELI family fun dayA few days before I graduated from Westfield State University (WSU), I was offered the opportunity to become an AmeriCorps*VISTA at WSU. My soon to be supervisor briefly explained to me that I’d be working with the WSU education department in conjunction with the Holyoke Public School Department (HPS). Once I heard I was going to work with my Alma Mater, the public school system I went to, and the community I grew up in, I had no choice, but to become a VISTA. As I started my journey in college, I began to understand my experiences (and experiences of others) in my community in relation to systems of oppression. As I learned more, I felt more in debt to Holyoke, and realized I needed to give back to the community that gave me so much. If it wasn’t for the experiences I had in Holyoke, I wouldn’t have the insight necessary to do understand the importance of the work I do today.

The first project I worked on was transforming the way HPS outreach workers facilitated a survey to parents that focused on early literacy home practices. When I saw the survey for the first time, I was terrified. I couldn’t imagine trying to have a genuine conversation with parents with a survey that seemed more of an evaluation of parenting skills. Of course I was “only” a VISTA and my concerns went unheard. When the results of the first trial run came back, the concerns I had from the jump, became transparent to everyone else. I was given the responsibility of creating a guide and toolkit to supplement the survey, so the conversations between HPS outreach workers and parents would shift from feeling evaluative to genuine. The guide and toolkit was filled with context, a mission statement, scripts, protocols, and data to guide future conversations with parents. The outreach workers appreciated the toolkit and thought it was helpful. HPS outreach workers had a much better second survey trial run with the toolkit. The responses we got in the surveys were better, but they weren’t what we were looking for. Something with the survey wasn’t functioning, and we decided to shift our project.

We decided a Parent Cafe would provide the platform we needed to work with parents. A parent Cafe is a model that eliminates hierarchy, and gives everyone involved the opportunity to express themselves-without fear of retribution or feeling foolish- and to learn from one another. The goal was to have parent volunteers from Holyoke’s Early Literacy Initiative (HELI) to facilitate the Parent cafes. The trainings for the parent volunteers extended longer than what we anticipated. We first scheduled 4 weeks worth of trainings, but we ended up doing 8 weeks of training. The parent leaders became so invested in the process, that they were the ones asking for more trainings. We held trainings from the Department of Children and Families, Gandara mental health clinic, and with a few other social agencies. By the end of the trainings our HELI parent leaders gained a wealth of knowledge, and their confidence grew exponentially. Our HELI parent leader’s preparation was evident as they successfully ran Parent Cafes with other parent participants. Now HPS is looking to create HELI parent leaders across the district and expanding the Parent Cafes next school year.

The final and current project I’m working on is connecting HELI with summer programming going on in the community. With the large learning gap low-income kids of color face during the summer we are trying to do everything we can to narrow the gap. I solidified a space for HELI to be at the Holyoke Farmers market. Every Thursday HELI parent leaders and I, are at the Farmers Market with a table filled with literacy activities and resources for kids. The kids get to write books, play word domino, hangman, sentence build, etc., while we connect with parents and share with them tools they can use to develop their child’s literacy skills. Every parent I meet loves what we are doing and are eager to work with us. At these events we ask parents to sign a HELI pledge (the pledge is a promise to do “one thing a day” that helps their kid develop literacy skills) and through the pledge we get the parents information, so we can invite them to future HELI events. Over my year of service I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of parents at different events, and have added about one hundred new HELI parents into our database.
My VISTA year can be described as a beautiful journey. I’m grateful for being able to work with my Alma Mater because it provided a lot of support. The work we do isn’t easy, and it can get overwhelming. If I didn’t get the support I did at WSU from professors and friends, I wouldn’t have made it this far. The relationships I built with parent leaders, WSU faculty, HPS staff, Holyoke community members, and my VISTA family enriched my VISTA experience. Not only have I done great work with great people, but I’ve built great relationships with great people. With the work and relationships I’ve built with others, I’ve grown professionally and personally. VISTA has given me a better understanding of the type of work environment I thrive and grow under. I am thankful for the confidence others had in me when I had no clue what I was doing, and giving me the freedom to spread my wings and soar.


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