Sister Marie Benzing smiles as she recalls the most recent graduation ceremony from La Casa Guadalupana, a family literacy program based in Detroit. “They were so proud, you know. They were each in their car, in the parking lot with their families, and Lourdes called their names. They got out of their car and walked up. She put their certificate on the corner of the table and then backed away. They took their certificate and all the horns were honking. It was so cool.” In the middle of a year that brought so many challenges to their community, the graduation was an occasion truly worth celebrating.
The program Founder Sister Marie and Director Dr. Lourdes Torres-Monaghan beam with pride when they talk about their students. “They’re just really beautiful people and they’re happy to be there. They support one another. We’ve just really been blessed that way,” she says.
Sister Marie is a Catholic nun who belongs to The Congregation of Sisters of St Joseph. La Casa is located on the outskirts of Southwest Detroit’s Mexicantown. An area that was home to many Mexican immigrants who worked for Ford in the 1960s and 70s, today, the neighborhood is home to folks with roots in many Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Colombia, and countries in Central America. “There’s this little pocket of Spanish-speakers in this big sea of English-speakers,” says Lourdes.
With a big heart for others and a passion for helping people learn, Sister Marie devoted 45 years of her life to being a classroom teacher. In 2002, she spent a month in Peru and started studying Spanish–and she loved it. “I had this desire in me because I had been teaching all those years, and [I wanted] something else to do with the last chunk of my ministry. I felt drawn to seeing what I could do in the Hispanic community,” she says. “So I left teaching and started studying a little bit more.”
“A friend of mine–a Sister in our congregation who is from Mexico–invited me to be a part of a [local] women’s group,” Sister Marie remembers. She accepted her friend’s invitation and joined. “…I thought, well, maybe I could make a contribution by offering to tutor the children of these women.”
And that’s exactly what she did. In 2011, she started the Centre de San Jose tutoring program for the children. “At the time we were in the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe and we started in the convent. It was empty–unused–and so we cleaned it up and started tutoring.” At first, they had approximately ten students and four or five tutors, all friends of Sister Marie’s. As she and the tutors got to know the children and their families, they realized that many of the mothers had not completed their education.
Sister Marie knew she could help these women, too. As a result, La Casa Guadalupana was born. Adding adult education classes meant they would be able to serve more of their neighbors with two programs: Centre de San Jose for the children, and La Casa Guadalupana for the adults.
In 2015, La Casa Guadalupana opened with 50 students and a handful of teachers. At first, they started with elementary and secondary education classes, as well as GED preparation. They then added ESL courses. As the program grew and gained traction, the board knew that they would be better able to serve their community by merging Centro de San Jose and La Casa Guadalupana under one umbrella as a family literacy program–so that’s exactly what they did. Today, about 100 students enroll each semester.
“One of the things that makes us unique is that we teach in Spanish,” Sister Marie says. Unlike the other programs in their area, which teach using one-on-one digital instruction, La Casa Guadalupana’s teachers use a more traditional model, with around 10-20 students per class. This group model gives them a chance to serve more students.
“What we find is that [the students] thrive on being together–on being with each other and learning together,” Sister Marie says. She sees how their model of group-based instruction in Spanish helps their students achieve their goals much faster. “Say you’re trying to learn math. If the teacher is teaching in English, you are struggling not only with the skill, but also with what that teacher is saying. So this way [the students] can move ahead with their skills. The testing is all available in Spanish for equal certification. That has given us an edge.”
The program has been well-received from the beginning. Sister Marie remembers an incident from their early days that’s been with her ever since. “One of the women came up to [our former director] in tears and said, I have been waiting for this. I am so grateful. What we found was that [the students] were really proud of their school. The spirit was so wonderful. People were just really happy to be there. It was really a joy.”
And that spirit has only gotten stronger as time has gone on. “When [the students] come in, you see their attitude, it’s kind of scared and introverted. By the time they finish each step–their elementary certificate, their middle school certificate, their high school diploma–you see this whole attitude of pride. Like, I don’t have to keep my head down anymore. I am just as good as you are. And they understand this is how education really changes them from the inside out. And just to see that blooming in each person, it’s just so rewarding,” says Lourdes.
Even in the midst of significant challenges, La Casa Guadalupana continues to have a positive impact in its community. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the school faced some serious obstacles. Although tutoring was suspended, adult classes continued online. In the fall, tutoring again opened up with virtual classes.
In the months that followed, the schools had to open and close a few times, but the students–and their leaders–remained resilient. Says Lourdes, “I think that also, that was another sense of pride [for them], that they had learned how to use a new technology, how to communicate in a different way.”
One of the ongoing challenges that La Casa Guadalupana faces is finding and maintaining funding. They receive most of their funds through grants, but now they’re expanding their fundraising efforts, and they’ve run two campaigns with ioby.
Their ioby campaigns La Casa Guadalupana and Against All Odds have both been a success. Not only did they reach their goals, but they surpassed them. “[In 2019],” Lourdes remembers, “we tried [using ioby] for the first time, and we were kind of doubtful because we had never really seen how crowdfunding worked. But in the end, I was just so surprised that we reached our goal and we were a little bit over. It just seemed easy, actually!”
Their most recent campaign yielded great results, too. “I thought [our campaign in 2020] was going to be even harder. But it turned out that no, the whole process just went a lot smoother than before, because we had our previous contacts, and those contacts helped us grow the network.”
In order to keep the school up and running, Sister Marie and Lourdes recognize that the community support needs to be ongoing. In addition to crowdfunding, they’re exploring partnerships as a way to meet their financial needs. They’re also considering applying for federal funds, and they asked their board members to reach out to their connections for donations, too. Sister Marie says, “Trying to reach sustainability is a big challenge. It’s all about making connections.” And Lourdes agrees. “You have to have a group of motivated and committed individuals,” she says. “I don’t think that one person can do it. That’s what makes it work.”
And as they continue their efforts to uplift their neighbors through education, Sister Marie and Lourdes know that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not you reach the big goals you set for your project. What matters, instead, is that you are using your time and energy to lend a helping hand. Remember, Sister Marie says, “the thing is, you can start small–and you don’t have to get big. Numbers don’t have to be big in order to spell success. I think it has to do with the folks [you] serve.”