Photos by Nic Antaya
Students become staff at Dominican Literacy Center
At Dominican Literacy Center in Detroit, Michigan, a ProLiteracy member program, staff members Kristina Matthews and Marcella Davis never doubt that anyone who comes through the door has the potential to succeed.
They should know.
Kristina graduated high school and went to Wayne State University while working full time. It was too much and so she left and enrolled in Wayne Community College. While she had many credits in a lot of different disciplines, she had no clear path. She knew she wasn’t strong at reading and writing, and she was never able to perform in her studies at the level she wanted.
So, she did what no one does anymore. She pulled out the phone book.
“I looked for Dominican in the yellow pages,” Kristina said laughing.
She went ahead and called. Within a month Dominican Literacy’s Executive Director Kimberly Williams called Kristina and told her they had a tutor for her.
She met her tutor Tetrick, and at that moment over 10 years ago, Kristina became part of the Dominican family, and she started to overcome her past educational obstacles.
Kristina had been diagnosed with dyslexia in the second grade when it was recognized that she wasn't learning. She repeated the grade and was placed in a special education class.
In her new class, learning was overshadowed by other kids’ behaviors.
“I wasn’t raised that way,” she said. “I wanted to learn.”
Kristina moved grade-by-grade through school in special education classes and some mainstream classes. She went on to attend the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts.
“It was like [the movie] Fame, everyone dancing. But it was small, and I was in mainstream classes, except for English,” she said. “They worked with me and graduated me.”
Despite her desire to learn, her dyslexia made it a challenge as she pursued higher education. At Dominican, she started to see progress.
“Dominican has overwhelmed me with a bunch of love,” she said. “My tutor helped me overcome my disability. She hung in there and took her time.”
Kristina worked on her reading and writing, and then one day a lightbulb went off.
“It was like, oh my god,” she said.
She earned her associate's degree from Wayne Community College in 2006.
While at Dominican she started attending Marygrove College to work toward a bachelor’s degree, taking a class here and there.
Then, her husband passed away in 2014, and after a few years, she returned to Marygrove and took two classes a semester.
Her dedication and hard work was recognized, and she was offered a job in the computer lab at Dominican. When Kim needed an assistant to match new students with tutors, Kristina took on that role, even becoming a mentor for Marcella, who jokes that Kristina has a “bionic ear for the word quit.”
Kristina can, maybe better than others, understand where new students are coming from.
“I give my testimony to every single student,” she said. “Education doesn’t need to be the typical four years.”
Marygrove closed in 2019. Kristina was told about Siena Heights University, which accepted her past credits. She earned her bachelor’s degree in December 2020.
She will tell you herself it was not easy, but she never gave up.
"I knew my dyslexia was not going anywhere," she said. "I had to learn how to manage it."
Marcella—with no money, no job, and no food to feed her six kids—was facing major life obstacles.
She was sitting on the couch one day, helpless and not knowing what she was going to do, when a friend asked Marcella if she had her GED.
Neither woman had their high school diploma, and her friend told Marcella that she knew a school where they could go together. Marcella agreed to check it out, and they went down to Dominican and filled out the paperwork.
“Something just clicked during orientation,” Marcella said.
She enrolled and started in a computer course. But, her biggest obstacle in school had always been math, and she was paired with her tutor Steve to study math.
It wasn’t easy, and there were days she felt like the numbers were haunting her, she said. But it was the easiness at Dominican that pushed her to confront the math concepts she struggled to understand.
“There was no one breathing down my throat or being negative. I started learning more and more,” she said. “Once I got that confidence, I was all over it.”
Marcella had uncovered the secret: confidence. Kristina asked Marcella to become a mentor to other students.
“I didn’t know what that was,” Marcella said. “And [Kristina] told me I do it every day.”
She continued her studies and mentoring students, and when Dominican needed a receptionist, Marcella said, “I can do this.”
With education and support, Marcella could see how her life was improving and that she was setting a good example for her kids. And the day she passed her GED test, well, that is a permanent stamp on her memory.
“I got my high school diploma on August 8, 2016,” she said gleaming with pride. “I will never forget that day.”
Marcella is still working on herself every day, continuing to learn, and has taken a coding class.
She does a little bit—or a lot—of everything around Dominican these days, an opportunity she said she can never repay. But she can do one thing. She can show up on time, ready to work. It’s the least she can do, she said. In fact, she wakes up before dawn to get there before anyone else.
“When I started, I was going through a whole lot. Dominican helped the heaviness come off me,” she said. “I love it here.”
Their paths were different, but Kristina and Marcella both learned that success doesn’t come overnight.
“If you have to take a step back or slow down, we are still here,” Kristina said. “Education will take you a long way. When you learn to read, you’ll be forever free.”
Marcella seconded that: “Never give up on yourself. Once you stop, you will never go back,” she said. “I had obstacles, but I did it. I stayed.”
This story is also featured in the most recent issue of Voices, a ProLIteracy member publication.