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Changing the world one young mother at a time

By Marie P. Grady
Correspondent

You could say Carla Oleska has a dream and an inspiration.
The dream? A world where every mother has the opportunity to get an education.
The inspiration? Tahirah Amatul-Wadud and many others like her. Today, Tahirah is a lawyer but over a decade ago she was a young mother in a program Oleska started at Elms College.
The New Horizons program provided one-on-one support and mentoring for non-traditional students, many of them young mothers who otherwise might not have dared to take on the challenge of college and raising kids. At a time when only 25 percent of students graduate from some community colleges, the New Horizons program boasted a 60 percent graduation rate.
It's no wonder Oleska, now executive director of the Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts, can see the possibilities. What if the concept of New Horizons was expanded to include every young mother, particularly those caught in a cycle of poverty?
But then Oleska knows what can happen when you follow a dream. That's why she recently convened a gathering of some of the region's top educators, non-profit and community leaders to focus on the problem of poverty in Holyoke, the poorest city per capita in the commonwealth. Among those in the room were Carol A. Leary, president of Bay Path College. Like Oleska, she holds a doctorate and a lifelong knowledge about the value of education.
So, when a few questioned how to take on this Herculean task, Leary urged them to just listen to Oleska.
The project in Holyoke will begin with a study by graduate students in the Public Policy program at the University of Massachusetts on what services are offered now and how well they are working. One student has already finished a study identifying the barriers women face in higher education, including a lack of mentors and the need for child care.
But Oleska's real objective is defined in a simply worded campaign: "Educate a Mom."
Tahirah calls her "Doctor C." But perhaps she could also be known as "Dr. See," for she seems to envision possibilities even where others find insurmountable challenges.
In one short conversation, she recounts not only the impact of programs she began as an educator at the Elms, including one for middle and high school girls called "Step Forward Step Ahead," but also an ambitious idea to end a literacy gap by enlisting retired teachers, perhaps in exchange for a tax rebate, to educate adult students. With government funds serving only a fraction of those in need of literacy and language services, innovative ideas may be just what's needed. Oleska is also a member of the Hampden County Literacy Cabinet, a group of influential community leaders who are working to end a literacy gap that threatens the region's economic future.
Tahirah's future was built upon a foundation of love and support at home. One of 10 children, Tahirah got involved with the New Horizons program as a young, married mother after her mother contacted Oleska and asked how her daughter could join the group. "I almost didn't have an option. Right after I got married, I started working at this dead-end telemarketing job and got laid off after four months," Tahirah remembers.
Tahirah was more fortunate than some of the other students. She came from a home where both mother and father instilled the value of education in their children. Her mother, Saliyhah Abdul-Wadud, home schooled the girls, and her father, Jamil Abdul-Wadud, is a teacher at Sabis International Charter School in Springfield.
Yet, as a young mother who had support from her husband, Tahirah still doesn't know how she would have persevered through college without the support she received from New Horizons. The challenges of welfare reform, which forced many to forego an education to put food on the table, may have put a dent in an already high graduation rate. "For so many members, knowing that they had support when they came into the campus was sometimes the reason they came to school," Tahirah said.
Some of the other students thought that the New Horizons students were getting a free ride, but there was no special financial support, other than financial aid available to all students, and no child care. Some traditional college students, Tahirah recalled, "don't appreciate what it is to have to scrape up $500 for books." But the network of older students and the constant support were a godsend.
After getting her undergraduate degree in paralegal studies, Tahirah was inspired to go to Western New England College School of Law, where she received a juris doctorate.
Today, Tahirah is a staff lawyer at Western Massachusetts Legal Services, where she helps provide legal assistance to those who couldn't otherwise afford it. That's in keeping with her Muslim family name, which means "the servant of the most loving God."
The Women's Fund hopes there will be more like her. In this region alone, the group has raised and donated $1 million over 10 years to help women, and consequently their children, achieve their fullest potential. The group hopes to raise that amount in half the time in the years ahead.
You could say that members of the fund are also servants of sorts, to building a community where every woman has a chance to succeed.
Marie P. Grady is director of the Literacy Works Project of the Hampden County Regional Employment Board. She can be reached at 755-1367 or at mgrady@rebhc.org.