Woodhaven educational center boosts women's confidence
by Lisa A. Fraser
Apr 25, 2012 | 1560 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
After Barbara Ramjeet emigrated to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago in 1997, she faced the challenge of not being able to help her son in school.

When he brought home homework, she wasn't able to help because she had only completed up to the fourth grade in her native country. She decided that in order to help him she would go to the library to further her knowledge, but it wasn't enough.

Her son attended St. Thomas The Apostle in Woodhaven, where she lives, and as fate would have it, she was introduced to The School Sisters of Notre Dame Education Center through a school-related event. It would soon be the place where she would continue her education, pushing on to obtain a General Education Degree (GED).

“It was tough but my husband and I wanted a future for our son,” she said. “I always wanted to further my education. I would go to the library and knew I needed to do something for myself.”

She has been taking free classes at the center for two years, and says the experience is one she would never trade.

“When I first thought about coming back to school, I had anxiety because of my age, then when I came here and met with the sisters and saw how it was,” said the 47-year-old mother of two. “I felt comfortable and told myself I could do this.

“They always have encouragement for you if there is something you don't understand,” she added. “You don't have to be shy about not knowing something.”

SSND has helped Ramjeet improve her English and her math skills.

“They don't just leave you stuck,” she said. “They make you do it and it's not just writing. You're forced to interact and you don't feel like you're in a school, you feel like you're in a conversation.”

In time, Ramjeet hopes to open her own flower arrangement business or join forces with her husband, who is a tailor.

The SSND Educational Center is a nonprofit organization that offers classes, job training and computer training to economically disadvantaged women, many of whom are immigrants from a broad range of countries. It helps them prepare for the GED exam and also provides a three-level ESL program.

Graduates emerge speaking better English and often go on to attend city colleges, vocational training programs, and enter the job market.

The center is run by Sister Catherine Feeney and three other sisters are on hand to teach the students.

“We celebrate a lot here,” Feeney said. “We're all peers here.”

The educational center originally started in 2003 in South Ozone Park, but moved to its current location at 87th Street and 88th Avenue in 2009 – a move which Feeney said helped triple enrollment.

Since its beginning, over 500 women have utilized the free services. The center depends on donors, corporation and city funding, and fundraising events, like the upcoming dinner fundraiser in May, to keep afloat.

Feeney called the multiculturalism of the women a gift to everyone.

“I do believe that we are a model for the neighborhood to say, 'women take the lead in learning to work together,'” she said.

Currently 80 students are enrolled, and they remain at the center anywhere from three months to two years.

Feeney said that the center is completely non-denominational, even though they are sponsored by a Catholic group, the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

She calls the center holistic, because it also hosts seminars on life learning, tackling topics such as domestic violence, identity theft and conflict management.

The women take part in the life of the center, organizing small events and parties and taking on leadership roles, something Feeney said the center aims to instill in them.

“We want to build their self-confidence,” she said.

For Sandra Mendoza, the center has transformed her and enabled her to become more confident.

“I am really, really happy to be here,” she said. “For me it's really amazing to be here because I know everybody. We are all precious to each other and the sisters have a good relationship with us.”

Mendoza first went through the ESL program before entering the GED program. “I understood English, but when I spoke I'd mix up the words,” she said. “Now I understand how to speak better through learning more words.”

She immigrated to New York from Mexico in 1997. Like Ramjeet, the experience has helped her to become more adept at helping her four children with their school work.

“I came here for my kids and I wanted something better for me in the future,” she said. “I want to be the example for my kids. Now when they ask me about a problem, I can say, 'let me explain to you,' and that for me, that's the best.”

Mendoza hopes to go to college after obtaining her GED. Eventually she hopes to become a pediatric nurse.

“The women here are determined, enthusiastic women who have a lot of hurdles to overcome and have found the inner resources to be able to do that,” Feeney said.

Feeney, who is originally from Brooklyn, noted that the center struggles to maintain its expenses every year, but praised the local civic groups and elected officials for helping out.

On May 8, a dinner fundraiser will be held at Roma View Fine Catering, at 160-05 Cross Bay Blvd. from 6:30-10 p.m. The cost of a ticket is $75. The event will feature Adriana Trigiani, an award-winning playwright and novelist and New York Times bestselling author. She will read and sign copies of her latest book, The Shoemaker’s Wife.

Feeney takes pride in the center's many success stories, with women moving on to becoming security guards, medical assistants, and nurses. The center, she stressed, is a home away from home for the women.

Ramjeet agrees. “It's like a family here,” she said. “You build dreams here.”

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