November Volunteer Spotlight: Allegra Van Rossum

Our November Volunteer Spotlight is Allegra Van Rossum. Allegra became a volunteer with us just this year, but she is already very involved with our organization in several ways.

Allegra is originally from the Madison area and served in the Army for 4 years after completing her degree in computer science at UW Stout. She relocated to Oshkosh for a job with Oshkosh Corporation a little over a year ago.

She loves Oshkosh and was already looking for a volunteer opportunity when she read about the Winnebago Area Literacy Council in the local newspaper. It seemed like a good way to get involved and give back to the community, so she reached out. Allegra is tutoring one individual, and she also comes to our Menasha classes every Tuesday and Thursday to serve as a classroom helper. In addition to those weekly commitments, she has been involved in our special events – serving as a judge for the Mark Gruenwald Comic Book Creation Challenge and attending our annual Spellbound For Literacy Event. Allegra says she enjoys being a WALC volunteer because we’re teaching usable, tangible skills and there is real measurable progress. WALC is grateful to have Allegra as a volunteer, and her efforts contribute significantly to the success of the organization. Thank you, Allegra, for your commitment and the positive influence you bring to the Winnebago Area Literacy Council!

October Spotlight: Mwigimba!

Mwigimba came to Oshkosh, WI as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo in November of 2022 at the age of 20. He arrived here with his sister while the rest of his family – his Mother and two siblings – were left behind.

Mwigimba’s biggest advantage as a newcomer was a good level of conversational English. He enrolled in our Road to Work for Refugees and Immigrants program early in December and by mid-January of 2023 he was offered a position of a Production Worker at the Amcor Health Care facility here in Oshkosh. He is very much liked on the job for his friendly, compassionate personality, as well as his business-like attitude and great work ethic.

Soon after his probation period Amcor offered him an absolutely exciting job opportunity – a Trainer Coordinator position that utilizes his skills as a Swahili-English interpreter at the facility. In this role, he assists all new Swahili-speaking hires at his facility and works with them during their training period teaching them the ropes.

The company management recognized Mwigimba’s potential and offered him financial assistance for a degree program from a local college for 2024. Mwigimba couldn’t be happier! He enjoys every workday, he loves the work environment and his team, he enjoys his supervisor and he is looking forward to his new bright future with Amcor!

Thanks to the stability of his position Mwigimba was able to buy a car and support his family while they were overseas. Not long ago his mother and siblings finally arrived in Wisconsin. Now he doesn’t have to worry about his loved ones, and they are all together again.

Mwigimba also provides support to the Swahili-speaking learners in our Road to Work program as an interpreter at their job interviews. “It’s my way of giving back for all the support I got, and it helps me reach a greater sense of fulfillment,” he says.

Congratulations on your success Mwigimba – we hope you continue to keep us updated as your journey progresses!

September Spotlight: Cathie

Our September spotlight of the month is Cathie.  Cathie is a new WALC employee, and she oversees our newly launched transportation program.  Cathie has been taking the bus her entire life, and firmly believes in the value of public transportation to the overall community.  As a result, she was ready to jump into this project from the moment we approached her with the idea. 

Our mission as a literacy council is clear:  we strengthen our diverse community by developing and delivering free learner-centered literacy programs for adults and their families.  So why are we delving into transportation?  Because our unofficial mission is even more simple:  Eliminating barriers.  We cannot deliver our literacy programs if the learners cannot get to class.  We were very lucky to find two people who were equally passionate about tackling this program, Cathie, and Tina.  Right now, they

develop an individualized transportation plan for each of our applicable learners.  They begin by meeting the learner at our class and assessing their needs as well as building a relationship.  They find out the needs of this individual learner – what business and locations they need to access in addition to our classes.  At that point they scout the routes – personally traveling the route from the learner’s home to those locations making detailed notes of landmarks, potential issues, and comparing the anticipated schedule to the reality of the trip.  At that point they take the learner to acquire their bus pass and schedule the first ride along with them.  They meet the learner at their home, walk with them to the bus stop, and travel to their destination and back.  They do this multiple times per destination, until the learner is confident enough in their transportation skills to switch roles.  At that point they become the teachers, leading Cathie or Tina along the route from start to finish, and back! 

Cathie said she loves this program because she personally gets to help create independence for the people she works with.  It’s visibly empowering for these families to gain the ability to navigate their new city on their own with confidence.  She said that the community really seems to appreciate the program – bus drivers and patrons are welcoming and helpful. 

Cathie has had the advantage of seeing changes in our local transportation system firsthand.  She watched when the city bus system transformed into Go Transit, and the upgrades that came with it.  She is hopeful that as the bus system improves more people in our community will use it.  For our purposes at the literacy council, it would be ideal to eventually have as many as 10 casual part-time employees that are familiar and comfortable enough with the routes and the system to train our learners.  As with all programs – the need ebbs and flows with the community.  If the idea of this program speaks to you, and you would be interested in helping as a bus trainer please let us know!   In the meantime, we would like to thank Cathie, Tina, and our partners at Go Transit for making this program possible!

August Spotlight: Pat & Htoo

Each month we share a story of one of our learners or one of our volunteers.  This month we are combining the two and sharing the beautiful story of one of our tutor pairs.   As we advertise, it only takes one hour of availability per week to be an English tutor for us.  A lot of our tutor pairs work together for a short time, the learner gains the independence they need, and both individuals move on – the learner to their lives, and hopefully the tutor comes back to us for a new assignment.  However, sometimes these pairs are such a good match that they voluntarily continue their relationship for years, and their relationship becomes more than just one of a tutor/learner.  This is one of those stories – and we are grateful to Pat and Htoo for letting us share it.

This story begins in 2018.  Pat’s son had a hard time reading when he was young, and they had gotten him extra help.  Pat wanted to do something similar to give back to the community.  Thankfully for us, she saw that we were conducting a tutor orientation, and she signed up!  She was the only person to sign up that day, and she was quickly matched with Htoo.  At the time Htoo had been in the United States for a while and she was working full time.  She had a good English foundation but needed help at the sentence level.  Pat says they had immediate rapport – “Htoo has always been easy to love and work with – she’s so fun and we laugh together all the time!”  Htoo was also very dedicated to learning – they immediately started meeting for two hours twice a week.  Shortly after they started meeting, Htoo became eligible for Citizenship, and they began to study together.  Pat said her favorite memory of studying for citizenship was when they got to the question “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” – without hesitation Htoo confidentially answered “Tammy Baldwin!”  That became a private joke between them that they still enjoy to this day.  Htoo passed her Citizenship test on the first try with flying colors.  Pat was there with her that day and got to listen when Htoo called her Mom back in her home country to share the good news.  Htoo’s Mom is so happy and grateful for Pat’s support for her daughter.

Htoo met her husband here in Oshkosh.  When Htoo got married, she asked Pat to stand up for her in the wedding.  When Htoo and her husband were ready to buy a home, Pat put them in touch with her husband’s nephew, a realtor, who was happy to help them.  And when it was time for them to start a family, Htoo asked Pat to be with her in the delivery room along with her husband.  When their second baby came it was Pat that drove her to the hospital through a snowstorm while Dad stayed home with their older child.  Pat got to cut the umbilical cord, and then she found out that Htoo had another surprise – they named this baby Nawpattyhtoo, after Pat. (pronounced “Naw Patty To”)  She could not be more honored. 

 These days Pat and Htoo are still meeting regularly to work on conversational English – and to enjoy each other’s company.   Htoo and her husband always have snacks ready for Pat, who loves to play with the children.  She also loves to hear about their families back home.    It is heartwarming to see the relationship that these two women have built, and how much they have learned and grown together.  Thank you again Htoo and Pat for allowing us to share your story.  Please keep us updated as your journey continues.

July Volunteer Spotlight: Rosie Buser

This month we are honored to introduce Rosie Buser – one of our dedicated and reliable volunteers. Rosie first worked with us 15 years ago. Life got busy (as it tends to do) so she took a break and then in 2022 when she retired she started looking for something else interesting to do. She remembered us, and how much she had enjoyed the “multicultural atmosphere” here as well as the “general respect for people” so she reached out to get involved again.

Currently Rosie is a tutor for us, and she works as a classroom helper in Beginner English twice a week. However – if we really want to get a picture of the amazing life of service Rosie has led, we have to go back.  Rosie says she’s always felt a calling to service – she “finds it challenging and very rewarding.”   She started out by studying to become a nun in High School at a Missionary in South America.   That didn’t end up being her final path, and she started pursuing higher education instead.  While she was studying Education at UW-Whitewater she spent her summers in the rural Mountains of Mexico as a bus driver and teacher.  She was very involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and in the 1970’s she was teaching in Houston, TX when she met her husband – who happened to be Muslim and from the Middle East.  They had three children together, and the adventures of their lives took them from Texas to India, Pakistan and Kuwait, which expanded Rosie’s language skills and involvement and experience in teaching ESL.  Rosie is fluent in Spanish and also speaks a little Arabic and Urdu.  Rosie said she has always enjoyed visiting and living in other countries because she has always been “interested in seeing how other people approach life and what they value.” 

All of these experiences lead to Rosie teaching ESL in the school district when she returned to Wisconsin. She especially loved working with the Hmong population when they immigrated to our area, describing the children as “so respectful, kind, and eager to learn.” “It really gets me going when people are eager to learn!” she added – eyes twinkling. One of her favorite memories working in the school district is when she was working at Oshkosh North, and she partnered with a teacher at Oshkosh West to introduce local students to the immigrant students. They got on a bus and rode to the other school specifically to get together in a room and just talk to each other – about their lives, interests, and stories. At the end of that, all of the students – both the Oshkosh born and immigrants students – were surprised to find out they were all pretty much the same. They had the same needs, they all liked music, they all occasionally butted heads with their parents, etc… That message – our innate sameness – is one that Rosie feels is very important. She has given dozens of presentations in her lifetime including “Refugees in Oshkosh: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (sponsored by American Association of University Women) to share that same message with the general community here. Rosie has earned numerous honors over the years for all her efforts, but she’s nowhere near finished. At the age of 75 she just began a new project – she took a mediation class so she can volunteer as a mediator for the Winnebago County Court System. This is in addition to everything she does for us here at the Winnebago Area Literacy Council – which she described as “the joy of my life. The students, the staff, and the volunteers here are all so kind and want to learn.”  Rosie – thank you so much for sharing your time and talent with us and our learners here at Winnebago Area Literacy Council. Our community becomes stronger every day because of people like you!

Jeanne Keilier at our Women and Children's May 2023 Potluck.

May Volunteer Spotlight: Jeanne Keiler

Meet our May Volunteer Spotlight: Jeanne Keiler!

Jeanne has been a volunteer with us since April of 2016, and she’s the definition of a person that never stops learning. Jeanne worked in the healthcare industry as an EEG Tech for 45 years, and when she retired she started looking for the next thing to do. She came across our organization online and because she loves to read she was immediately interested in the opportunities volunteering with a Literacy Council had to offer. Jeanne started as a tutor for us, but also signed up to get a certification from Fox Valley Technical College to teach English as a second language. During that time she began volunteering at our Women and Children’s Class in addition to her tutoring responsibilities. First she began working with just the kids, and then 1 day teaching, 1 day with the kids, and eventually she moved to just teaching our adult learners. When Covid 19 hit Jeanne started a weekly newsletter with her students, giving them one lesson a week to keep them going. When we got to that Fall she began teaching her class online. She’s very glad to be back in person with her class and loves connecting with new learners. Jeanne also teaches our Citizenship Workshops four times a year, and is happy to help as a substitute teacher in other classes whenever we ask. In her spare time she is studying Swahili.

Thank you for sharing your talent and time with us and all of your learners Jeanne! We are so lucky to have you!

Jeanne Keilier at our Women and Children's May 2023 Potluck.
Jeanne Keiler at our May Women and Children’s Potluck.
Teacher Jeanne at Women & Children’s Class.

April Learner Spotlight: Bahjat Askandar

Bahjat Askandar and his family moved to Oshkosh, WI from Iraq in 2014.

Bahjat did not know a lot of English when he arrived here. He was a skilled welder by trade back at home and prioritized learning English and working on professional skills to meet the U.S. industry standards.

He enrolled in all of the programs we offer here at the Literacy Council and later in a Welding program with Fox Valley Technical College. Upon graduation, he got a job with Generac Power Systems in Oshkosh. The company management saw his potential and recognized his professional expertise. They greatly encouraged and supported Bahjat in improving his English communication skills so he could be promoted to the Supervisory position in his department. With this goal in mind, Bahjat returned to the Literacy Council and started working with one on one with a tutor to achieve his goal. All his effort and dedication paid off – this year he got a promotion and is now working as a supervisor in a welding department at Generac. Having improved his financial situation, Bahjat saved enough money to buy his own house for the family.

His current goal is to send his elder daughter to college. She dreams to be an Immigration Attorney. We wish Bahjat and his loved ones all the best, and congratulations on your success!

March Volunteer Spotlight: Michele Sliwicki

Meet our March Volunteer Spotlight: Michele Sliwicki!

Michele has been a volunteer with us for 15 years this month! She is currently tutoring 8 different learners and runs the children’s classroom at our Women and Children’s English Class. Michele is beloved by our learners and their children alike – the Mom’s in our program are at ease knowing their kids are with her while they attend their own classes. When I interviewed a learner that used to attend Women and Children’s she said that entering regular preschool was hard for her son, because according to him, “school is fine, but it’s not as fun as Michele School!” Michele doesn’t just lead class and tutor – she helps in every way that she can. She helps lead our citizenship workshops, she has helped with data entry when we were shorthanded, she assists learners with making doctor appointments AND transports them to those appointments, she signs all of our Women & Children’s learners up for the back to school fair and Toys for Tots. She has helped her students apply for mortgages, green cards, and Habitat for Humanity houses. And if that list isn’t enough – Michele ALSO volunteers at World Relief!

In previous years Michele was a computer programmer and at times worked inside the home to care for her children. Her personal passions include genealogy, her family, and reading.

Michele – thank you SO MUCH for everything you do for our organization and learners. Your generosity is inspiring for all of us!

Teacher Michele reading today’s story!
Animal identification at Women And Children’s English Class
Eating together at the quarterly Women and Children’s Potluck
Dress up play time plus shapes at Michele School!

February Learner Spotlight: Terza Chol

Meet Terza Chol!  Terza and her family are originally from Sudan/South Sudan, and her mother moved their family to Egypt when she was only 9 to escape the conflict in their home land.  Terza’s Father and two of her sisters did not come to Egypt with them, so her Mother had to support Terza, her 2 sisters and 2 bothers in Egypt on her own.  Her Mother worked very hard – regularly putting in 12 hour shifts in large part so she could pay to send the kids to school – even for refugees an education is not free in Egypt.  Terza mentioned that even when the kids were able to afford to go to school, the education was not great.  Terza “had a lot of dreams growing up, but no opportunities to pursue those dreams.”  Without a parent around there was no one to encourage success in education, and because of the cost she was only able to attend intermittently.  For the next five years life continued much the same – her mother continued to apply to the UN for resettlement, the kids went to school off and on, and Terza had her own son.  At that point Terza’s mother went back to Sudan to visit the two daughters she had left behind, and was unable to return to Egypt.  That left Terza in charge of working to pay for her siblings to attend school, as well as caring for her own infant son. 

She worked in housekeeping, they lived in refugee housing in Cairo, and every chance she got she went to the UN to apply for refugee assistance.  Finally in 2015, Terza and her siblings were approved to start the resettlement process.  They went through 6 rounds of interviews, and every time they got close to resettlement things would get delayed.  Finally they were told that they would get a call sometime in the next 2-3 months – they HAD to answer that phone call, or they would be passed up.  Terza anxiously kept her phone on her until that call came.  When the call finally did come, she was told that she and her sisters were approved for resettlement – but her brother had turned 18 during this time, which changed his status. He would require further background checks.  They could either let Terza, her sisters and her sons – she now had 3 – go ahead and be settled in America while her bother would stay behind, OR they could wait for him.  Terza explained that Egypt was a very dangerous place for Sudanese men at the time – she didn’t want to leave her brother behind because she feared for his safety.  As a family they decided to wait – 3 more months went by, conditions continued to get more dangerous for their family, and no progress was made on her brothers background checks.  Her brother sat Terza down and encouraged her to go on without him.  He wanted his nephews to be safe and be assured of an education.  He told her he would follow as soon as possible.  In July of 2017 Terza, her three sons, her sister Maggie and her sister Nya boarded a plane to New York City.  From New York they flew to Chicago, and then on to Appleton.  All six of them were moved into a two bedroom apartment here, and they started over.  Just one month later – August of 2017, they received a call that their brother was not going to be joining them – he had been murdered in Cairo.

Terza was sick with guilt – she said during that time she spent a lot of time crying.  She was only able to pull through because she had to be strong for her boys.  Those early days here were hard – everyone missed her brother, they all knew very little English, it was hard to get to the grocery store and back on the bus, it was colder than anything they had ever experienced, and they had very little other than mattresses on the floor.  She said even though it was hard, every day she told herself she “just had to make things a little bit better for the kids.”  They were in school – and for that she was extremely happy and felt blessed.  She felt grateful that every morning the bus driver would smile at her and say “Good Morning.”  Unlike in Egypt, people here were generally nice to her, and tried to help them.  She started working in housekeeping at a hotel, got signed up for English classes at Fox Valley tech, and received a tutor here at Winnebago Area Literacy Council.  She worked hard to get her drivers license, saved up to buy a car, and moved into another apartment.  She got a new job in housekeeping at Aurora Medical Center, and her manager there encouraged and helped her to apply to the Habitat for Humanity program to get a house for herself and the boys.  She was approved!  Terza and her family will be moving into their new house next year.  During this time she also passed her fifth year in the United States, and she took her citizenship exam – and passed!  She is now working on the paperwork to get her sons citizenship.  She said she always wanted to work hard for her boys – but the encouragement she has received along the way made it easier.  Her tutors here believed in her, and told her if she worked hard she would succeed – and they were right.  Terza cannot wait to move into their new house, and recently found out that her new neighbor will actually be a friend of hers – they lived next to each other when they originally moved here, and used to cook for each other frequently.  It’s been a long road, but thanks to her hard work and perseverance Terza and her boys have a bright future ahead of them.

January Volunteer Spotlight: Valerie Williams

This year marks the 10th year of Valerie Williams volunteering with WALC!

Val has been an awesome volunteer at our Women and Children’s program – formerly called Family Literature. For the past 10 years, she has been attending the Women and Children classes regularly every Tuesday and Thursday. During class she holds babies and plays with children so their mothers can focus on learning with no concerns about their little ones. She does puzzles, makes play-doh with the kids, organizes puppet shows, reads to the preschoolers, and much more. One of her favorite stories to tell the kids is of a doll she had donated to the program. The doll was her daughter’s, and the clothes on the doll were made by Val herself. Val has an instant comforting rapport with the kids – they love and trust her the second they see her, and she loves the kids unconditionally. Another passion Val enjoys is gardening – and she often brings fruit and vegetables from her large garden to share with the women in class.

Everyone at the Winnebago Area Literacy Council would like to thank Val for all that she has done for us and for the positive impact she has brought to the families she has helped – thank you Val!