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Priceless Experiences at COABE 2019

20th November, 2019

Blog post by Meg Eubank, Welcoming the Stranger

The National Literacy Directory's 2019 COABE (Coalition for Adult Basic Education) Conference Innovation Grant graciously waived the registration fee and supplied a travel stipend to offset costs of Welcoming the Stranger attending the COABE conference in New Orleans in April 2019.

As a small nonprofit with only one full time staff member, we don't often get to partake in professional development opportunities. Over the past few years, our organization has seen a dramatic increase in student enrollment and increased student needs (many students with limited formal schooling, severe trauma, and physical or learning disabilities) to the point where we have often felt taxed and stressed. So much of our efforts (and funding) go to helping the students as directly as we can, but we tend to forget that a little investment in professional development is really important, and better equips us to be able to serve students with more knowledge and tools. The National Literacy Directory's generosity allowed us an opportunity to attend a conference with a wealth of information and resources that is now brought back to our organizational family of over 100 volunteers and over 900 students. Spreading this web of knowledge will greatly impact our learning community.

Welcoming the Stranger offers free classes and resources to nearly 1,000 immigrants and refugees each year in ESL, computer skills, and citizenship preparation. We teach students from 104 different countries from a wide variety of backgrounds, each with unique needs. Our classes offer individualized, personalized lessons that focus on needs that are identified for each student. We strive to meet these needs by addressing each person's goals with multiple teachers in a classroom (mostly volunteers) and a varied curriculum.

COABE directly applied to our mission of helping people become literate, successful, thriving learners.

Our organization has the challenges of teaching mixed groups of immigrants and refugees with a wide variety of backgrounds, needs, and issues in one classroom together. Compounding these issues of educational and life experiences that may affect learning are issues of trauma, undiagnosed learning disabilities, the need to learn pre-literate and basic academic skills, the need for life skills, and many other issues.

We are constantly seeking resources to meet the needs of our students, and we found a treasure trove of resources at COABE. Attending sessions on volunteer training and management, how to teach pre-literate and beginning English language learners, cultural awareness, assisting refugees and asylees, trauma informed teaching, teaching reading and writing to English Language Learners, using community resources, finding funding sources, and nonprofit leadership not only equipped us with new ideas, sample lessons, and new techniques, but with priceless networking with others in the field who have all of their knowledge and experience to share.

Since Welcoming the Stranger runs on volunteer labor, and has an active volunteer force of over 100 people, we are constantly seeking ways to train, manage, and retain volunteers. I was thrilled to be sitting in a session where the woman next to me spoke up about her nonprofit that does similar work and has a similar makeup to ours, and mentioned her organization's training model. I thought, "I must connect with her!" We exchanged cards, and later set up a phone conversation to share program models with each other. Serendipitously, we learned that we were both NLD grant recipients – The Literacy Center and Welcoming the Stranger would never have met had NLD not generously sent us to this conference. The information The Literacy Center shared with us will have a lasting impact on the way we are revamping our volunteer training. Sometimes, things are just meant to be.

COABE offered so much to everyone in the adult education field. We all need ideas of how to address challenges – COABE offered solutions, and offered a large pool of people from all over the nation to network with and share ideas. We need inspiration, and need to see what else is out there and what others are doing. COABE was the perfect venue for sharing and connecting, and giving us resources so that we aren't always trying to reinvent the wheel. We need lesson resources, and wow, did COABE deliver!

I went home with lists upon lists of free lesson sources to utilize. We need funding, and my little notebook is bursting with ideas for fundraising, ways to approach possible funders, ways to form new partnerships, and more.

Lastly, in our field of adult education that is often heartbreaking, rewarding, exhausting, and hardly ever easy, we need validation. We need validation that we are doing the right thing, that our work is impactful, that we are on the right path. We need the support from our peers who have gone through the same growing pains and who can tell us, "It gets better" and "You're on the right track." We need the words of wisdom that our colleagues can provide, words of encouragement, the solidarity of knowing we're not alone in our challenges, and validation that our work is vital to the community and to communities all over the nation.

Thank you, National Literacy Directory, and thank you COABE, for the opportunity to experience all of this and for your generous support.

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