In a corner of a dining room at the nation’s oldest women’s shelter, decorated, dog-eared journals were cradled by mothers and grandmothers. One by one, the women mustered the courage to stand up and walk to the front of the room. Some paused to take a nervous breath or looked down shyly. Their brows furrowed as they read the words on the page aloud.
Sara Jorgensen, director of the Women’s Education Center at Rosie’s Place, stood up with them for support. “Write me more details . . . paint a picture of your life,” she said.
For five weeks, nearly 30 women at Rosie’s Place shared stories that will eventually be published in a book. The shelter, which offers social services for poor and homeless women, sought to provide a creative outlet for women of all backgrounds, whether working or retired, in housing or homeless. The free program, dubbed the Writing Cafe, was held between semesters of an English as a Second Language class, which starts back up this week.
Volunteer teachers had students explore themes such as what it means to be a woman and storytelling around the world. Local writers visited classrooms and spoke about their work. The education center offers free English for Speakers of Other Languages instruction, literacy and computer courses, and free one-on-one tutoring for at least 300 non-traditional students each semester. The shelter, on Harrison Avenue, has 2,500 volunteers and serves about 12,000 guests each year.
Last year, staff members asked the women what else they wanted to study. The majority wanted to improve their writing, said Michele Chausse, the shelter’s director of communications. There were women who had never learned to write in their native language, let alone in English.
For some, this was their first experience in a school setting. The women asked that the desks be arranged in rows, patterned after the schoolhouses in their countries. They asked teachers to write on the board. They listened attentively and wrote with pencils on worksheets.
Their stories came from around the world: Boston, the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. During the last week of class in early February, the women encouraged their peers to read aloud. They received rewards for attendance. Instead of the purses or necklaces that were donated as gifts for the class, a number of students walked out with English workbooks.
“Don’t be shy, be strong,” said Askale H., 68, of Ethiopia, to Helen N., 73, of Hong Kong.
“I’m old, you young,” Askale continued.
Helen doesn’t like staying home by herself or simply watching television in Chinatown. She wants to learn English. She said her daughter hardly speaks Chinese. Hilda V., 58, of the Dominican Republic, said after years in the United States and raising her children, she felt it was her turn to learn. The shelter asked to only use the first name and last initial of the women in this story.
“This class is very important,” Hilda said. “But, we feel like teenagers . . . like we’re in kindergarten.”
Hawa I., of Somalia, stood and spoke of a war. She told of not seeing relatives for two decades. Orquidea L., 63, of the Dominican Republic, talked about her mother. A nurse back home on the island nation, Orquidea wants to eventually use her degree in the United States.
Scheena F., 49, of Boston, spoke of sisterhood. The Writing Cafe gave her courage.
“I’m a woman who struggles with depression,” Scheena said. “My experience has been awesome. I can’t describe it — it’s given me so much energy to be able to be among people like myself.”
Gina L., 43, of Haiti, talked of friendships made inside the shelter. She has handwritten prayers attached to her jacket with safety pins. “Dear God,” one reads. “When things don’t go quite as I expect, please help me to trust you. Thank you that you are always with me.”
Their stories will be published in a book that is scheduled to come out in April.
“This is a place away from their troubles,” Jorgensen said. “We try to make them feel at ease.”
Teachers told students to write about their lives in detail. But some pain runs deep. Many were not ready to deal with those traumas. Rosena B. was. The 45-year-old wrote about the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, of death and buildings disappearing. It was the first story she wrote. It was short, but she read it in front of her class.
Leonor M., 43, wasn’t allowed to go to school as a little girl. Because of gang violence in El Salvador, her parents feared for her safety. Teachers who attempted to make the trip to teach kids in her village were killed. Children were kidnapped or recruited. She only learned to write her name, to count to 100, and to memorize the alphabet. She’s now been learning English for three years at Rosie’s Place and is enthusiastic about the writing lessons. She looks to the dictionary when she finds words she doesn’t understand.
“It was so difficult,” Leonor said in Spanish. “The verbs in English — but over time I’m starting to realize I’m learning. I love finding new words in the news and in books.”
Next to her, Orquidea, promised she’d help teach Leonor to count in Spanish.
“Nothing’s impossible,” Orquidea said. “It’s never too late to learn.”