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Our Mothers Are Our Future

Jane Ferreira, President and CEO of Bridgeport’s Mercy Learning Center told Westport Sunrise Rotary on Friday that “a mother’s reading level correlates directly with how far her children will go in school.”

Club member Nora Jinishian, MLC’s Student Enrichment Coordinator introduced Ms. Ferreira, calling her “a long time advocate for the poor and underprivileged,” that she has headed Mercy Learning Center for almost ten years and that Ferreira holds a Masters Degree in Theology from Yale Divinity School.

To help meet the educational, social and even urban survival skills of the Bridgeport area’s under served and underprivileged community, MLC “provides basic literacy and life skills training to low-income women.”

It operates with a $1.5 million budget. During the year ended June 30 it served its largest ever enrollment – 626 women and 175 of their children. The women were aged 19 to 92 and came from 51 countries. None had a high school diploma. 82 percent do not speak English as their primary language; 98 percent live below the poverty line; 67 percent were unemployed; and 66 percent are mothers.

Programs taught by 196 unpaid volunteers included intensive study programs in English as a Second Language, Basic Education and preparation for the GED exam. The Center also offers 24 enrichment programs and workshops in topics including employability, college placement testing and financial literacy.

Mercy Learning Center is a small antidote to futility.

“Over 37,000 of  Bridgeport’s adult Female population is functionally illiterate,” meaning they may possess basic reading and writing skills, but cannot read newspaper articles, help wanted ads, bank documents, prescriptions or the like. This a “huge problem for society” Ferreira added.

When the Center begins working with its clients they average “a third grade reading level and second grade math skills.” Ferreira added, sadly, that “students who had attended Bassick High School in Bridgeport were about the same” (it should be noted that barely half the students who enter Bridgeport’s three high schools graduate).

“I thought Bridgeport schools were decent until I got to Mercy.” Her revised description included words like “dysfunctional” and “Byzantine.” The deck chairs don’t move, but the occupants do – to no avail for the city’s school children.

Among the immigrant women with school age children, many are “often happy to have a school with a roof and books… sort of.” “Because mothers had no education, they had no idea what was bad… they couldn’t tell me what was wrong.”

In many countries, if girls are educated at all, they receive only the most basic schooling at no cost. In some South American countries ten year olds are sold by their families to others who use them to perform menial household chores in exchange for money the impoverished family needs to feed itself.

In other countries, women may speak multiple languages, but read none – an African who speaks English or French as well as a tribal language – but, again, whose family could not afford the cost of any more than the most basic education.

Ferreira said MLC students are poor, but most “are not on state assistance.” To live in Bridgeport requires an income of $22 per hour – something the Center’s clients would typically require three jobs to realize.

She talked about the benefit of a GED, a “GED graduate is a better hire than a dropout.” In the population MLC serves it is not uncommon to have family members incarcerated, or to have lives that “just fell apart.” The Center offers these women a second chance.

She did a little mental head scratching as she said that many public ESL and GED programs are offered primarily in the evening. “How does a single mother take advantage of these?”

In addition to education, MLC offers lessons in acculturation. One example, many women with young children have never seen disposable diapers, they don’t know how often to change them, with the result that MLC sees lots of diaper rash cases.

All that said, MLC makes a significant contribution to the lives of its students and to their children and families. 25 students received high school diplomas – the most ever for the program. 36 graduates of the Transition to College program are continuing their education at community or four year colleges. 14 women passed the naturalization test and are now citizens. And six received drivers licenses.

When she was asked what we can do, she asked for volunteers for the Center. She told the group that we – all – “have to put more pressure for education,” and added “Westporters would never allow their children to attend a system such as Bridgeport’s.”

You can also help with a donation – money, gift cards, non-perishable food items, even disposable diapers.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mercy Learning Center, please visit their website:

Ms. Ferreira closed by thanking Sunrise Rotary for its generosity.

Photo by Hal Levy

Roy Fuchs