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WAITT House helps Roxbury residents reach life goals

By Meghan Noe Pilot Correspondent
Posted: 4/17/2009

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Stephen Hanley, director of WAITT House Pilot file photo/ Gregory L. Tracy

ROXBURY -- The Sisters of Charity founded WAITT House, an acronym for “We’re All In This Together,” to assist adults in the Roxbury area in improving their lives and changing their situations through literacy classes, career preparation, computer skills, high school diploma programs and college preparation classes. By helping people, one individual at a time, the sisters have attempted to change the culture of the Boston neighborhood, often fraught with poverty and violence. Today, approximately 1,800 people have benefited from the program, due in large part to the work of Stephen Hanley, executive director of WAITT House. On March 29, 2009, the Sisters of Charity presented Hanley with the Elizabeth Ann Seton Award for his dedication to the center.

“I am humbled that I was chosen to receive this award and that the sisters think that I deserve it because, when you know what the award stands for and you read anything about the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, it is humbling to be compared to a person of that magnitude,” said Hanley, who has been executive director for the past 20 years.

“It is amazing to see what she had to endure in her conversion to the Catholic Church, as a widow and as a mother who lost some of her children. To have the tremendous faith that God is good and God is love against those odds is incredible,” he added.

Hanley explained that Sister Mary Kay Brady founded the WAITT House because she and the Sisters of Charity wanted to respond to the changes in the Roxbury community during the late 1970s. In particular, Sister Mary Kay wanted to address the issues that new immigrants face and to help them to assimilate into society. She also wanted to help non-immigrant adults who lacked basic educational skills.

“Like the Sisters of Charity, we have to all believe that we are in this together and we have to work together towards improving people’s lives and their conditions,” said Hanley. “What can you accomplish in a community if you work in isolation? You need to reach out.”

Hanley has dedicated the past 20 years of his life to this goal. He teaches daily classes at the center, which is open Monday through Friday for morning and early afternoon classes. He spends much of his time securing grants and funding for the center and he has expanded the scope of WAITT House by forming connections with the Roxbury Community College, the Vine Street Community Center, Dimock Center and Allanza Hispana. Additionally, Hanley has created an adult literacy program, an ESL bridge program for students who need additional skills to take their English to the next level, a computer literacy program and a college transition program. He also successfully petitioned to have the Dudley Literacy Center reopened in 2002 and created the A-Amen project to provide educational and employment opportunities for underprivileged African-American men.

Hanley said he simply tries to give his students hope in the future because hope gives a person the faith to continue and to succeed. WAITT House attempts to create an environment where students see that education is one of the keys to developing meaningful life skills, he continued.

“The word hope can be misunderstood between something that could possibly happen and wishful thinking. If your hope is in wishful thinking then you can fall into discouragement and despair,” explained Hanley. “At WAITT House, the students always receive encouragement to avoid any discouragement and when they see others who start at the beginning levels of literacy and English and are able to move up through the levels in a few years and reach their goals, it gives them a real sense of hope and it’s not just wishful thinking.”

There is currently a waiting list for classes and services at WAITT House, which enrolls 120 people per year. Adults generally spend 15-20 hours per week at the center and take classes ranging from computer literacy and English literature to college transition and career preparation. Also, they can take all the classes that they need to receive an actual high school diploma. WAITT House has awarded approximately 450 high school diplomas through the Boston Public Schools’ Adult Diploma Program (ADP). They are able to place 95 percent of their graduates into jobs, skills training programs or college.

“The effects of someone returning to school are a sense of self satisfaction and an ‘I can do this’ attitude,” said Hanley. “Graduates are better able to participate in their communities, help their children with schoolwork, participate in church, start their own businesses and go to college. Whatever the goal is, it affects other people in a very positive way. It is very worthwhile.”