For this episode of Community Conversations, we spoke with Jen Mora Zuniga – the Executive Director for BEACON for Adult Literacy, a program through the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia.
Q: So tell me a little bit about the program.
A: The Benedictine Sisters of Virginia live in Bristow. So there are 29 sisters, and they are a part of – there’s really two kind of parts of them – there are sisters that live in Bristow and there are some sisters that live in Richmond. And they have several different ministries. They have BARN, which is transitional housing, they have Linton Hall School, which is pre-K through eighth grade. They have Gertrude High School, which is in Richmond – which is the last all-girls Catholic school in the state of Virginia, which they’re very proud of – for good reason. And they have other services like pastoral counseling and pastoral services.
Q: So you’re the Executive Director for the BEACON for Adult Literacy [program]. So tell me about that program.
A: Sure, so BEACON for Adult Literacy – our mission is to serve the needs of the English language learners in the greater Prince William area by empowering them through education – helping them to meet their educational goals and their employment goals. So we offer a number of different classes. We have English classes, we have citizenship classes, we have a caregiver pre-CNA class and we serve about 350 students a year.
Q: So the students that you serve – what kind of students are they?
A: So they’re all adults, everyone is over 18 that comes through our program, but they come from many different educational backgrounds – some students have never been to school in their home country, some have been professionals in their home country. We have students from 47 different countries, so a pretty wide variety of backgrounds. Many of them are Hispanic, but we’ve got – like I said – Asia, Africa, all different parts of the world.
Q: With that many different students from different countries coming in, the need for volunteers has to be great. So what do you need [in terms of] volunteers?
A: So we’re always looking for volunteers to teach classes. We have volunteers that teach English, we have volunteers that are assistants. Maybe they don’t want to be the lead in the classroom, but they’re wanting to get involved in some way so they’ll assist in a classroom. We have tutors that work individually one-on-one with students, and we have volunteers that help with a number of different things, like teaching technology, helping out with registrations, helping out with office work occasionally – that’s a need. So any kind of way that people are looking to get involved there’s a place for them at BEACON.
Q: Do you have citizenship classes? Why don’t you tell me about those.
A: First, citizenship students have to know 100 questions about the history and civics of the United States. And I’ll be honest – there are questions I learned in the fifth grade, but it’s a close call if I’d pass the test today. So they have to know all of those 100, but they’re only asked up to ten. So our classes help them to prepare for that test – they have to read a sentence in English and they also have to write a sentence in English, which when English is your second language can be really, really challenging. And throughout the entire interview they’re being tested on their English language skills, so they need to be conversational in order to be able to pass the citizenship test.
Q: And you have other classes also. What kind of classes do you have?
A: So we offer a pre-CAN, which is – we call it caregiver class – it’s meant to be an introduction to certified nursing or the healthcare industry. So that students who are at the highest level of our program who are interested in pursuing a career in healthcare can learn more about what that would look like before they go on to another program, pay more money and find out maybe it’s not the best fit for them, based on their interests. So we offer that class and then we refer them to organizations in the area that could help them, connect them to becoming certified in that area.
Q: You have specific English classes also. So how does that work?
A: So we really have eight levels of English classes. So when students come to our program, they take an informal assessment to see more or less what their level might be, and then they’ll take a second test, which is a formal assessment – either a reading test or a speaking test, to place them into one of our eight levels of classes. So we have at the lowest level a class that’s designed for students that are coming in with no language skills, but they also have the added challenge of not having had the opportunity of going to school in their home country. So that class starts at the very beginning, but it also goes at a different pace than our other classes.
And then we have two other – three other levels of beginner, two intermediate levels, and two advanced levels of classes. And then we also integrate into those classes technology – we want students to be able to have a life skill, that’s important not only for communicating with your children’s teachers, or getting a job in the community. But it’s something that really impacts every part of their lives. So we integrate technology and we also integrate workforce into our classes. We offer resume coaching for students at the highest levels, and we also do presentations to help them [with] the skills they need to get a job or a better job.
Q: So on the technology side, what do you help them with?
A: The goal is really for them to be learning English through a computer. And then it’s kind of an off product that they learn the technology. So they’re not teaching people how to use PowerPoint or how to use Excel, but we’re teaching them how to use an Internet browser and uses a website that practices English, so that they have that skill for other aspects of their lives.
Q: You have an event coming up, so why don’t you tell me about the event.
A: Absolutely. So BEACON for Adult Literacy has one annual fundraiser and our annual fundraiser is called ‘Scrabble Scramble’. So on May 20, we are going to play two rounds of competitive Scrabble in teams of four. So people register as a team of four and they come and the nice thing about it is if you’re really competitive and good at Scrabble, this is definitely your event. But if you’re not great at Scrabble or a little hesitant – you play as a team, so you can show each other the tiles and help each other – you just can’t exchange the tiles. It’s supposed to be a family friendly event, so those who are really competitive at Scrabble – that’s great – those of you who are looking for a more family fun night, it’s also great for you as well. We have raffle prizes, we’ll have pizza, and it’s just a great time for everyone.
Q: And where’s it going to be held at?
A: It’s going to be held at Linton Hall School in Bristow, Virginia.