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Homework Help and hard work pay off

By Marie P. Grady Special to Reminder Publications This is what happens when love defeats cynicism. When realism is confronted with idealism. When hope deflates despair. A decrepit old building gets a new life. A generation of youngsters learns that the word "success" is in their vocabulary. Children who are pushed into the corner of our collective consciousness climb up a ladder of learning and never step down. On a recent night I visited the Homework House in Holyoke, an afterschool program that has grown by leaps and bounds since I first tutored there in 2007. As a journalist I had often trained a spotlight on the story unfolding all around us: a whole generation of kids seemed to be lost, locked out of the American dream as they left our educational system in droves. Yet, we seemed like bystanders to a traffic accident; we looked once, and moved on. A colleague at The Republican told me that one of the series I assigned had helped to inspire the need for a place like this. So, on a cold winter day, after leaving a newspaper career with as-yet unrealized plans to study the law and to write a book, I answered the call to volunteer. I was supposed to fill in on a winter break for one of the many college students who assist here. But I stayed the entire school year, tutoring a dynamo named Eric, among others. In the meantime, I took on a new role heading literacy efforts for the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County Inc. I also enrolled, at age 46, as a full-time student at Western New England College School of Law. As I visited a Fall Fiesta at the Homework House in Holyoke recently, I remembered one of the reasons I got into law school in the first place. That would be Sister Jane Morrissey, a co-founder of the Homework House, along with Sister Maureen Broughan, of the Sisters of St. Joseph. For a time I was both tutor and student. By day I would assist children; at night Sister Jane, a math whiz, would tutor me on how to master the logic questions on law school entrance exams. It was no surprise I hated the logic questions. I've always been guided by intuition. Thanks to the college and Sister Jane, my plans to go to law school part-time changed to plans to go full-time. This blessing was also a gnawing worry. Who would lead the literacy effort? As it turned out I didn't have to worry. Bill Ward, executive director of the Regional Employment Board, has been leading this effort for more than a decade. He once told me he was smart enough to hire people smarter than him. But his true gift is finding the right people to manage key community efforts at the right time. He has found that person in Literacy Program Manager Maura Geary. A mentor and former adult education instructor, she walks the walk and talks the talk. At the same time, the Homework House has thrived. While it once served students from grades three to five, it now serves students from grades one to seven. Tutors, once scarce, now abound, thanks in particular to word of mouth among many of the region's elite colleges. Sister Maureen tells me they had 19 more student tutor applicants than needed in one recent semester. And the Chestnut Street site of the Homework House, Our Lady of Guadalupe Gym Building, has literally been transformed. Once plagued with a leaking roof, the building has a new ceiling. Children scamper across new hardwood floors and the chalk dust that used to punctuate every math problem I posed to Eric is no more. The ancient "black boards" have been replaced. Eric, I am told, is a science whiz; no small wonder, as I think he was the one leading me through successively more difficult math equations back then. And the children are literally learning on a higher plane thanks to a little girl named Donesha. Her parents, who had to bury their little girl too young, asked that donations be sent to the Homework House. The money was used to build a little stairway to heaven called "Donesha's Corner," a loft for learning. I tell Sister Jane this all seems like a miracle. Then I correct myself. I know all of this is the result of a hell of a lot of hard work. Almost every success in life is. The success of the Homework House is not atypical. All across Western Massachusetts, programs like this make the difference between lives marked by indifference, despair and dependence and lives marked by passion, perseverance and triumph. As I navigate my last year of law school, I am proud to turn over this space and this mission to Maura Geary. And I thank all of you who have answered the call to volunteer and all of you have written, even if it is to criticize me for not doing enough to recognize the tireless work of educators as I reminded all of us how far we have to go. As one Homework House student wrote on a poster thanking that program, "You Rock!" For more information on literacy programs, including Homework House, contact Maura Geary at mgeary@rebhc.org. Marie Grady an be reached at mariegrady@mariegrady.com.

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