Hudson Family Literacy faces cuts as need rises

HUDSON–The Hudson Family Literacy Program, a locally developed project that helps immigrants from Bangledash, Haiti, Mexico and Yemen develop the language and other skills they need to get by in America, faces a funding crisis that may be insurmountable.

In December 2011, New York State Secretary of State Cesar Perales came to the John L. Edwards Elementary School to present a $100,000 Discretionary Workforce Development Award to Hudson Family Literacy Program Director Sophia Becker. At the time it seemed that the program–one of six organizations across the state to receive the award–had reached a level of success that would ensure its future financial security. The program subsequently received two Community Service Block grants for $30,000 each.

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Hudson Family Literacy home visitor Aliaa Saleh (l) helps Rasheda Akhter with a computer problem in order to deal with a visa application for her mother. Ms. Achter’s son Kouchick, 2, looks on while her son Kamran, 4, watches educational television. Photo by Debora Gilbert

“Those grants are no longer available to rural, regional communities,” said Tina Sharpe, executive director of Columbia Opportunities, the local literacy program’s parent organization. “The New York Office of New Americans says the number of foreign born citizens is not high enough here. Because of the small size of our community and its relative normalness, given the current demographics, no one group stands out as being in great need when compared to the rest of the country.”

Ms. Becker questions the government’s analysis. “The concentration lies in specific areas, it’s not spread throughout the county, and the numbers are, I believe, underreported,” she said.

Ms. Sharpe agrees. “There’s a lot of fear,” she said, adding, “We work with a low literacy population. For some we are the only consistent help.” The statistics, she said, mask the reality: “There is a greater demand here than we are able to supply,”

The focus of the Hudson Family Literacy (HFL) program, which began in 1998, is early education for children and assistance and education for their parents. For older kids the program provides help with homework and experiences like a theatre outing or a boat excursion on the Hudson River. It offers English lessons to new immigrants and helps them obtain citizenship, visas, employment, a car.

HFL has helped illiterate adults acquire the most basic skills, from writing their name, phone number and address, to using a cell phone, computer or shopping for food.

And the program is not just for immigrants. It helps at-risk youth, high school dropouts and teen parents. It acts as a conduit to other community resources, including Headstart and Wheels to Work, and helps clients develop job skills and become partners in the education of their children.

“The program is designed to help see people through difficult phases in their lives, gaining literacy, learning child rearing, finding work,” said Ms. Sharpe. “We start where our customer is at and develop a program to meet their needs.”

“Everybody, when they first come to town, starts at HFL,” said Laila Wali, a member of Hudson’s Bengali community. Her 15-year participation in HFL alongside her children helped her become fluent in English and find employment at Columbia Memorial Hospital. “We didn’t know anything. They help everybody, not just Bengali, also Arabic and Spanish.”

If the program closed, she said, “This would be terrible for people coming in.”

“Hudson now has about 500 Bengali people. Most went to Hudson Family Literacy program,” said Taslema Akter. “They learn to speak there. They get a job. I really appreciate them for their helping.” She has participated in the program 14 years and has not forgotten their help with rides to the dentist and doctor. “The citizenship process would take much longer without their help,” she said. “My husband came here in 1995. He did not get this benefit. It was much more difficult.”

If the program ends, Hudson residents in need of help with immigration or citizenship issues will have to travel to Albany to obtain it.

Among the program’s obvious success stories are the help it provided a female student from Yemen with a learning disability. She received help and became the first girl in her family to graduate from high school. In another instance, a different girl, who was kept home by her strict immigrant parents who forbade her to attend high school with male students might received the home schooling that eventually enabled her to graduate from high school and college and to enter medical school.

“Never underestimate the power of a teacher’s impact on a family’s adjustment,” said Ms. Becker.

In recent months the program has scaled back its operations, with only two family advocates and without the help of two long-time staff members, including the program’s youth advocate. What had been a summer program that lasted up to eight weeks has been reduced to two one-week sessions. And home visits are down to one per family per month.

But the popular annual Thanksgiving celebration now in its eleventh year, was still scheduled at JLE Elementary School November 18, with 170 expected to attend, thanks to the generosity of several local food companies.

HFL, which is run out of an office and classroom at the elementary school, works in partnership with the Hudson City School District, which partially supports it by providing rent free space and an ongoing contract with the district’s after-school program.

“We feel they are an integral part of our educational system, providing opportunities for families to come together, working to bridge the gap of language barriers, helping families assimilate into our society, and bringing culture to schools in a very positive way,” district Superintendent Maria Suttmeier said. “Loss of this program would mean a terrible loss to our community.”

Abdus Miah, the Hudson Alderman and a former Bengali chess champion who arrived in America in 1995, said, “They are a valuable program and we need to save it. We need to work together to find some money for this program.”

Anyone interested in helping Hudson Family Literacy survive can donate by going online to Columbiaopportunities.org .

Or donations may be sent c/o Tina Sharpe, Columbia Opportunities, Inc., 540 Columbia Street, Hudson, NY 12534. The phone number is 518 828-4611

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