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Family Literacy Program rekindles dreams

Lacecia Davis reads to her sons Christopher, 5, and Ezekial, 3, during a family literacy program at 230 Maple St. in Holyoke. The program allows mothers to study for their Graduate Equivalency Diplomas while their children are cared for in a nearby room.

By Marie P. Grady

Marilyn Santana is the daughter of Carlos Santana. And when you see her easy smile, it reminds you of the legendary guitarist who can turn rock's mean, hard riffs into soft lines that stay with you long after the song is over.

On a recent night, after telling me she is the daughter of Carlos Santana, Marilyn smiles and says, "But not the one."

We both laugh.

Somehow, I already know this.

If she was the daughter of the rock legend, she probably wouldn't be sitting in a class in Holyoke trying to get her graduate equivalency diploma, or GED, because she never had a chance to finish high school. She probably wouldn't be working two jobs and raising three kids on her own, including two teenagers.

But, perhaps because she is the daughter of another Carlos Santana, she was born with a drive that has the power to lift her beyond fate and circumstance. And because she loves her kids, she has always gone the extra mile, even when it has been painful and lonely. And somehow I know this woman will succeed.

Marilyn is among 10 young women on a recent night attending a collaborative family literacy program run in the basement offices of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children at 230 Maple St. A partnership with the Community Education Project and the Holyoke Public Schools, the program allows mothers to continue their education while their children are cared for in the Parent Center next door.

The program is part of the Pathways to Family Success family literacy program in Holyoke. Funded by the state Department of Education, Verizon and the Massachusetts Family Literacy Consortium, the program focuses on educating the whole family.

My visit came as the state of Massachusetts prepared to celebrate Family Literacy Month in November. Although funding remains sparse, the need for such programs can't be overestimated.

But with a modest budget of about $50,000, including a five-year grant from Verizon which may soon come to an end, the program is serving just a fraction of those who need help in this city. Holyoke, which leads the state in teen pregnancies and per capita poverty, recently became a victim of federal budget cuts when it lost funding for its much larger federal Even Start family literacy program.

Yet even smaller programs such as this one have the potential to change many lives.

The 10 women in teacher Wendi Carman's class say it has allowed them to do something that sometimes seemed impossible: reach again for dreams deferred.

"Without this literacy program, we're like, nowhere,'' says Maria Ramos, who wants to work in human services. "We thank God for this."

Lorna Andujar takes a break from her own study to read a book with her daughter, Gisselle Bonilla, 2, and son, Nathan Bonilla, 9.

Some day, she'd like to be a forensic scientist, but she knows her study now is just a beginning.

Andujar, 28, says she was tired of being "in and out of public assistance. I want to be a role model for my kids. My father would always say, 'Get your education.'"

She didn't listen to him then, but she is listening to him now. "Now that I'm older, it's important to me to be somebody."

Classmate Celines Santiago wants to work with special needs kids. Delilah Perez, a young mother-to-be, doesn't know yet where her education will take her, she just knows she wants it.

Lacecia Davis, 36, wanted to be an archaeologist once, but life got in the way. While she studies for her GED, her children, Christopher, 5, and Ezekial, 3, are being cared for in another room. She says she could never pursue her dream if there wasn't a program like this.

What happens when a dream remains deferred? The poet Langston Hughes asked that question once and wondered if the dream dries up, "like a raisin in the sun."

When a parent's dream dies, sometimes the future of the family can die along with it. Sometimes the potential of whole generations can crumble.

Mothers like Davis are determined not to see that happen.

Civilized society, she says, is founded on the bedrock that everyone is entitled to an education. Many, she said, have died in the struggle to make equal educational opportunity possible.

But some have to work harder to get it.

"Not everything is guaranteed in life. Not everyone is born with a silver spoon in their mouth," she says.

Then, as if remembering back to when she first put her dreams on hold, she offers some words of advice to others who will follow in her footsteps.

"Don't listen when people say, 'You're not good enough.'"

Marie P. Grady is the director of the Literacy Works Project of the Hampden County Regional Employment Board. She can be reached