Even though NJALL was not able to hold an in-person conference this year, we still wanted to honor the hard work of members of our adult education community. To that end, NJALL is pleased to highlight the work of two outstanding individuals.
Barry Semple Lifelong Leadership Award
About thirty years ago, Mariam Merced, Director of Community Health Promotions at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, reached out to the New Brunswick Public Schools Adult Learning Center (NBALC), offering a Health Fair for students at the Center. Her vision included bringing volunteer physicians and other medical personnel to provide free health screenings. These included such medical concerns as blood pressure, diabetes, breast cancer, cervical cancer, HIV/AIDS and dental screening.
NBALC’s initial reaction to this offer was very cautious, when considering all the possible logistical issues and ramifications. Mariam, however, had such a clear and passionate vision, and gave the gentle reassurance, “Don’t worry, we know how to do this.” After a thorough discussion of concerns, NBALC nervously agreed to be partners.
At the first Health Fair in the early 90’s, Mariam’s team quickly set up the NBALC classrooms to resemble a health clinic. Cautiously, our students arrived and were escorted by volunteers to various screenings. Mariam’s team identified a large number of students with untreated, life threatening symptoms, who were followed up for immediate treatment. NBALC was hooked on what an incredibly important addition this was to its adult education program.
That was the beginning. NBALC continues to hold annual Health Fairs, that last one in February 2020. It has been ongoing and expanding for thirty years due to the incredible vision of Mariam Merced.
Currently, there are over 40 partners who collaborate to bring these services to the Center. In fact, screenings have, at times, been extended to the parents of children in the school district. Services include providing flu shots, cholesterol and glucose screening, blood pressure screening, dental screening, dermatology screening, HIV/AIDS testing, audiology screening, vision screening and even an opportunity to learn critical stress relieving relaxation techniques. Students who participate are provided a “Passport to a Healthy Life”, which they bring with them to each of the health screening locations to have signed by the medical personnel after the consultation. The Fair provides a safe space for providers to meet with those in the community who are in need of health care. Due to the high volume of new immigrant students at the NBALC, the Fair also serves as a bridge to connect them to the health care and social services system in the county.
Another benefit of this huge undertaking is that high school students are recruited to gain valuable volunteer experience by assisting as escorts, registrars and translators. They are provided with certificates of appreciation for their volunteer time at the conclusion.
Mariam Merced is more than worthy of this lifelong leadership award. Her compassion, knowledge, expertise, tenacity, passion and warmth have served her so well in bringing over 40 agencies to the table to collaborate in these efforts. She has effectively addressed one of the most important challenges which so many of our students face.
It is hoped that by shining a light on the outstanding leadership efforts of Mariam Merced, others in our state will be inspired to investigate similar collaborations to benefit the students we serve.
Teacher of the Year Award
Susan Pristas has served many roles as a volunteer teacher at Literacy Volunteers of Somerset County (LVSC), the most significant being the development of a Beginner ESL Program for under-served adults. Susan's tremendous dedication of time, energy, and whole-hearted commitment to creating a program, teaching students, and training fellow volunteers has been unparalleled. A program which began as a small pilot has expanded to include 120 students in two communities and is supported by 15 volunteers.
Susan is a retired teacher with a graduate degree and a long career teaching ESL, German and Spanish. LVSC does not have the budget to hire and retain someone of Susan's caliber and was thrilled that she offered her services without pay.
In 2016, LVSC came to the conclusion that its traditional tutoring program was not meeting the needs of a growing population of Spanish speaking adults in the less affluent towns of our community. Susan identified, reviewed and created a beginning curriculum to suit the students' needs. She researched available classroom resources and then purchased (and donated) materials for the class. She then created outreach materials, and assisted with student assessment and enrollment. Finally, she piloted the first 10-week class. Eventually, she even mentored other tutors to take the materials and teach classes in other communities.
During the pilot, Susan met with students every Saturday morning in the fall of 2017. The following Monday, she would come to the LVSC office (with coffee for the staff!) to reflect on the program and the lesson. What worked? What didn't? What adjustments needed to be made? She kept detailed record and copious notes, working with the utmost in professionalism and always keeping the students' best interests in mind. At the end of the ten weeks, Susan created a full curriculum and class rules so that the course could be repeated.
Susan led two more classes in 2018 and two in 2019. She also figured out how to do at least some of the class via Zoom in the midst of the COVID lock-down. The program met with such success that a neighboring town requested a similar program. Four tutors who Susan trained were able to take Susan's curriculum to this new town.
The number of beginner-level students LVSC is reaching in under-served communities has expanded exponentially. When Susan started, 35% of LVSC's students came from these communities. Today the percentage has grown to 50%.
Student feedback also demonstrates Susan's effectiveness as a teacher. Here is some feedback from students: "She was really friendly and had patience with us." "I liked being here on Saturdays because I learned many new things." "Thank you for helping us to continue learning."
Susan embodies the qualities of Teacher of the Year: she is a skilled teacher, kind mentor, treasured volunteer, and ideal role model who is generous with her time and talent.