Literacy Green Bay honors Franciscan sisters for 20,000 tutoring hours of service

By Nancy Barthel | The Compass | October 2, 2013

Program names tutoring room ‘Sisters’ Study Hall’ in honor of Sr. Carlotta and Sr. Jeanne

GREEN BAY — Two women were recently honored by Literacy Green Bay for an unparalleled, combined total of over 20,000 hours volunteering to dozens upon dozens of people who wanted to learn the English language.

Sr. Jeanne Jarvis, left, and Sr. Carlotta Ullmer, members of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Bay Settlement, were recently honored by Literacy Green Bay for their service as volunteer tutors. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Sr. Jeanne Jarvis, left, and Sr. Carlotta Ullmer, members of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Bay Settlement, were recently honored by Literacy Green Bay for their service as volunteer tutors. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Without a break, they have volunteered for 27 years.

To put that amount of community service into perspective, Pope John Paul II was himself only eight years into his 27-year papacy and Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president when Sr. Carlotta Ullmer, 93, and Sr. Jeanne Jarvis, 91, both Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Bay Settlement, decided they would tutor adult students in the English language.

When the sisters decided to become tutors, neither had yet retired from their ministries as educators.

Check out the homepage of Literacy Green Bay (see www.literacygreen bay.org) and you’ll see a photo of the two sisters being honored by Kathy Cornell, executive director of Literacy Green Bay. It seems more than apropos that the thank-you celebration is featured next to the announcement about the training sessions for new tutors.

began tutoring in 1986

The sisters first became tutors in 1986 during an early influx of Hmong refugees settling in the area. Since then, Sr. Carlotta has tutored 58 students and is currently working with two. Her total volunteer hours are 11,640. Sr. Jeanne has tutored 50 students and is also currently working with two students. Her total volunteer hours are 10,376.

“What makes them truly special is not the total number of hours they have tutored or the number of years they have spent volunteering, but the spirit with which they have tutored,” said Cornell. “They are admired and respected by all our other tutors, staff and friends.”

That respect and friendship was evident during the thank-you celebration that culminated with a big surprise — the dedication and naming of a tutoring room as the “Sisters’ Study Hall.”

There were plenty of misty eyes as Literacy Green Bay staff members, volunteers, board members and other Bay Settlement sisters attended the ceremony Aug. 20 at the agency’s office at 424 S. Monroe Ave. The honor continues a big year of celebration for both Sr. Carlotta and Sr. Jeanne, who marked their 75th jubilees with the Bay Settlement community.

They chatted about their many experiences with Literacy Green Bay during a visit at the Bay Settlement motherhouse in Green Bay.

Satisfaction helping others

Both express a lot of satisfaction having helped so many people hone their English skills. But what seems to mean even more was the privilege they had being the friendly non-judgmental face, the person with the kind word, who introduced them to the culture of America and northeast Wisconsin. Both are also proud to say they’ve helped many of their students study to become U.S. citizens.

For Sr. Carlotta, she was introduced to the idea of tutoring with Literacy Green Bay by a fellow sister. “I thought it would be something that I would enjoy even though I was ending my teaching career,” said Sr. Carlotta. Generally tutors and students meet two times a week for an hour and a-half each session.

For Sr. Jeanne, she was serving at St. Bernard Parish in 1976 as a religious education teacher when the parish adopted a Hmong family. She had enjoyed her experience working with that family, and later decided to volunteer with Literacy Green Bay.

“I didn’t choose literacy,” said Sr. Jeanne. “I think literacy chose me.”

She noted that the family sponsored by St. Bernard Parish still lives in Green Bay, and that the 9-year-old boy in that family is now in his mid-40s.He recently visited the motherhouse to thank Sr. Jeanne for all she did for his family. Today, said Sr. Jeanne, his children have master’s degrees.

She reminisced about all she helped introduce that young family to: the library, Bay Beach Amusement Park, taking them to a pumpkin patch, Veterans Day, even the hospital and an attorney. “We had so many learning experiences with these people,” said Sr. Jeanne with a gentle smile.

There have been lots of light-hearted moments through the years. Sr. Carlotta told the story of her first student and how she was trying to explain to her the difference between the words  “hole” and “whole” when suddenly it “clicked” — or so Sr. Carlotta thought. Yes, “ho, ho ho,” like Santa Claus, her student happily responded.

“I still keep in touch with her,” said Sr. Carlotta.

There has been some heartache. Sr. Carlotta told the story of her Hmong student who had been shot on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam and had been left paralyzed from the chest down. One day he just disappeared from Green Bay and she was never able to find out where he went.

encourage others to volunteer

Sr. Jeanne and Sr. Carlotta encourage older adults to volunteer, no matter what the activity. It’s important, said Sr. Carlotta, to keep your mind active. “You can’t sit back and be lazy,” she said with a glint in her eye.

For younger people, Sr. Jeanne suggests cultivating many interests, then when it comes time to retire, you’ll be prepared.

And she has some sage advice for those who are already retired or soon looking toward having more time to give back to the community. “Be spiritual,” she said, and set aside some time for silence and solitude.

It’s easy to understand why Literacy Green Bay has been such a good fit for Sr. Carlotta and Sr. Jeanne. Most of the students they have tutored during their 20,000-plus hours in volunteer time have been either Hmong or Latino. Both cultures, said Sr. Jeanne, “have reverence for the aging.” They also value the extended family, she said, and “they are people of great faith.”

In the end, said Sr. Jeanne, “All people desire the same thing.”

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