Jan Allen retired in January 2015 from a 40-year career as a college English professor, having taught in France, the Netherlands, Illinois, and the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, Maryland. She wanted to give back to the community and learned about the Ignatian Volunteer Corps through a friend. “There are hundreds of nonprofits”, she says. “It would’ve taken forever to match myself up to the work that was being done. Then I learned about IVC and thought, ‘Oh, I bet the Jesuits will be able to solve my problem’”.
And she’d say that IVC has ‘solved her problem’. “Through IVC, you can use what you’ve learned and studied and your life experience. I love to teach. I’ve never had students that I didn’t love. That’s what’s wonderful about IVC. They’re tapping into a category of people who want to volunteer but who aren’t necessarily using the skills they have spent years building up”.
Jan entered IVC knowing that she wanted to work with women and use her educational background. IVC Regional Director Steve Eberle helped match her with Asylee Women Enterprise in Baltimore, Maryland, a brand new IVC partner agency, and it has been a great fit.
“I can’t imagine what the women have gone through to get here, but they’re so full of kindness and love”, says Jan.
Asylee Women Enterprise’s mission is to “help women seeking asylum to rebuild their lives and spirits”. The organization provides transitional housing, companionship, and community by offering a safe home and opportunities to connect with the larger community and each other.
Jan describes the women who come to the agency, “In most cases, the women we serve come from African countries and are escaping horrible circumstances. In order to be part of AWE there has to be torture or a threat of torture. That’s how they find their place here. The local Catholic Charities offices, attorneys, and clinics know of our services and that’s how they find us”.
“Legally, those seeking asylum must be in the United States for 150 days before applying for a work permit. They come to AWE during this time for English classes, counseling services, financial literacy programs, and other resources”.
Jan recently completed her first service year at Asylee Women’s Enterprise, where her primary role has been to develop, write and teach the English writing courses. When she began at AWE, the courses weren’t organized into levels. Jan jumped in, using her background as an educator, and wrote the common course outlines, syllabi, created daily activities for 3 levels of classes, selected and purchased books. Now AWE offers a beginner course, which is taught on a one-on-one basis, an intermediate level, and a 101 class, comparable to freshman level 101. The courses’ pace is determined based on student need so as not to overwhelm students, but meet their specific learning needs.
When asked about her experience overall, Jan says, “I love it! The women are hopeful and optimistic despite all they’ve been through. I’ve never heard a sharp word the whole time I’ve been there. The human contact is deep. They care about us and we care about them”.
“My background is in teaching, but it hasn’t been like this. The community college setting is diverse, but you don’t always get to know people so well as we do at AWE”, she says.
“This is the first time in my very long teaching career that students have asked for a longer class. They are eager to learn. They know how important it is to write. Writing is the basis for knowing a language – if you know how to write the language, you have a wonderful facility”, Jan describes.
Jan plans to continue serving through IVC after this first year. “I’m so lucky”, she says. “I know a lot of people who volunteer and their experience is something they enjoy but there’s no effort to sustain the volunteer like IVC does. It’s a support more than a normal support group. IVC has a conscious organized effort to sustain us at very deep levels. I come out of every retreat, day of recollection and monthly meeting feeling so grateful. It’s the spiritual piece of IVC that makes it so different and so very valuable. IVC is taking care of an essential human need in all of us – to keep enriching other lives and growing personally and spiritually”.
“In one sense we’re helping people”, Jan says, “but were being helped along. I feel like I’m getting a lot more help than I’m giving”.