2014 Community Service Award Goes to Melissa Gary
For Melissa Gary, recipient of the 2014 Gatherings of Hope Community Service Award, the true reward comes from seeing her students succeed:
“I always think of the man who rides three buses in the morning to come to class,” she said. “He stays for four hours and goes to two classes because that’s how important this is to him. It’s so great to see the impact this program is having on the students. I know we’re giving something to them, but what we receive in return is ten times more.”
We recognize her exemplary leadership through service and volunteerism for her role as the volunteer coordinator for the extraordinarily successful Adult English Language (AEL) program at San Juan Diego Academy, in Wyoming, which is co-hosted by the Holy Name of Jesus and St. Robert of Newminster Catholic Parishes.
At its core, this program offers beginner, intermediate, and advanced AEL courses to Spanish-speaking students from the host parishes and their surrounding communities, but those involved know it is much more than that. At an appreciation dinner honoring Melissa and the outstanding team of 16 volunteer teachers she leads, HNJ’s Reverend Stephen Dudek shed light on the spirit of genuine love, care and devotion that make the program at San Juan Diego so exceptional.
“I have never worked with a more dedicated group of volunteers than the men and women who teach these classes,” he said. “This is a team that really cares about their students and is truly committed to their success, and that shines through in the remarkable work they are doing. I am humbled, proud and inspired as a pastor to see my congregation coming together as a part of this incredible program.”
The AEL offering at San Juan Diego Academy is supported by GoH and the Literacy Center of West Michigan, but GoH Program Officer of Congregational Initiatives Khary Bridgewater notes the success of the initiative is due entirely to the efforts of those who volunteer their time, week in and week out, to make it happen. They are the ones, he says, who have touched the lives of hundreds of students over the course of the program’s 12-year existence.
“Our only job at Gatherings of Hope is to look at the work of the Church, see where there is life, and go there and offer our support,” he said. “We saw your AEL program and realized that it is full of life and vibrancy, and we came on to support you and just be your cheerleading squad in the great work that you are doing and have been doing for many years.”
At the award ceremony, Bridgewater went on to applaud Melissa and her team for the intangibles they bring to their work – the rare qualities working beneath the surface to turn their AEL offering into much more than just a place to learn the English language.
“What we are truly celebrating here tonight is your love for others,” he told the volunteers. “It’s obvious that what you are doing in your program is so much more than teaching a class. You are transforming lives. You are not just teaching a language; you are providing the opportunity for your students to get ahead and achieve a life that is better. It is an empowering thing that God is doing through you.”
Bridgewater went on to say that offering the kind of sincere love that strives to help others attain the tools to prosper in life is the true work of the Church. That is exemplified at San Juan Diego, where AEL students leave class with much more than a better understanding of the English language. Melissa and her team are committed to helping provide their students with the information and connections they will need not only to integrate into society but to serve their God-given purpose and achieve their life-goals after their time in class is complete. Often, the teachers refer students to other opportunities such as GED courses, community computer classes, college enrollment, extracurricular activities and more.
Those extra-mile efforts, the volunteers insist, are stirred by their skillful coordinator’s ceaseless enthusiasm and zeal for serving others. When Melissa’s team members speak of her, their words paint a picture of a dynamic leader whose energy and passion for her work are exceeded only by her giving heart.
“Melissa is always smiling and always willing to roll up her sleeves and get the job done,” said one volunteer. “I love her optimism, and her dedication is simply exemplary.”
The love is mutual. Melissa said she would only accept the award on behalf of her teaching team.