Having arrived at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building in the mid-afternoon on a sunny day, my colleague and I decided to sit down while waiting for our host to arrive. After rushing through our usually busy weekday, we both jumped at the chance to sit and chat in the relaxing waiting area. It was almost like something was beckoning us, inviting us to come in and enjoy ourselves. We had just begun to chat when the focus of our visit, Brad Hasskamp, appeared right out of thin air.
As the Program Manager for English Language Learning (ELL), Brad manages more than 10 literacy programs which are divided into four subject areas: Basic English Skills, Work Skills Courses, GED, and Children’s Literacy. Each program area has at least three levels (typically beginning, intermediate, and advanced) that offer participants a chance to improve their skills over time. Any non-native English speaker at least 16 years old, is eligible for the ELL courses and can enroll anytime throughout the quarter. However, earlier this year and for the first time ever, Brad and his staff were forced to create a waiting list for people interested in enrolling. Luckily, the longest anyone has had to wait was just over a month.
A pillar in the community for over 100 years, Neighborhood House is often the first stop shop for new immigrants and refugees from all over the globe. While the Wellstone Center serves as the organization’s main location, the Highland Mac-Groveland Family Center and the West Side Family Learning Center also provide programs and services to community members. According to data from 2005, about a quarter of those attending the Family Centers speaks Spanish as their primary language, another quarter speaks Hmong, and an additional quarter speaks an African language. The last quarter of participants speaks a hodgepodge of languages, but tends to be European, typically Russian, Southeast Asian, or Middle Eastern.
Community, service, education, diversity, and empowerment are not just concepts that were promoted by the Wellstones, but they are the principles on which the programs and services of Neighborhood House rest. While the mission of the organization might sound simple—to build doorways of opportunity for vibrant and diverse communities—its goals are anything but. To accomplish its mission, the organization partners with individuals, families, and organizations to meet essential human needs, facilitate active participation in community life, and provide access to additional community resources and programs. Services are grouped under one of four main program areas: Life Connections, Families First, Community Building, and Youth Leadership.
One of the unique things about the ELL Programs offered at Neighborhood House is the flexibility given to participants regarding the type of class they want to take and the amount of time they want to attend. According to Brad, most learners want to learn English to help them get or keep a job, but many also just want to learn English so they can feel more comfortable doing basic things, such as grocery shopping, going to the bank, reading the mail, and talking to their child’s teacher.
This year, Brad won the Adult Education Teacher of the Year Award for his work in designing class curriculums that respond to the wants and needs of ELL students. Empowerment is the name of the game at Neighborhood House and Brad has played a critical role in supporting that goal by giving the ELL students a voice and allowing them to determine what it is they want to learn. As even further proof of its distinct and exceptional curriculum, the ELL Program received $20,000 from a national 2006 “Family Strengthening” Award from the United Neighborhood Centers of American and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The ELL program will also serve as a model for innovation in adult education and pass on its best practices to agencies throughout the U.S.
If Paul and Sheila were here today, they would be proud of the organization housed inside the building that bears their name. On the outside the building appears like a work of modern art, but inside it is something even more special. The inside of the building, with its circular shape and windows in place of walls, conveys a message of hope and acceptance. Like a breath of fresh air, the Center stands on the West Side of St. Paul as a beautiful tribute to the memory of Paul and Sheila Wellstone. But more than just a memorial in their name, the Wellstone Center is a living testament to the beliefs of Paul and Sheila and the values they worked so hard to instill in Minnesota and in those who live here.