Note: This article is the last in a ten-part series, leading up to Adelante Mujeres' 10th Anniversary Celebration on Wednesday September 12th at the Forest Grove Farmers Market. For more details, see the Adelante Mujeres website.
Written by Charles Drummond
“It was like watching flowers grow.” Sister Barbara Raymond knew that she and co-founder Bridget Cooke had made the right decision to launch Adelante Mujeres in 2002 as she watched the 12 education-starved Latina women who formed the original pilot project blossom before her eyes.
As the Forest Grove-based nonprofit prepares to celebrate its 10-year anniversary on Sept. 12, I had the opportunity to sit down with Sister Barbara to discuss where the organization has come from and where it is headed. Although she retired from Adelante Mujeres four years ago, she is still actively engaged as a volunteer.
It’s easy to understand why she has been such an effective influence on the organization and the lives of those she taught. I couldn’t help but think of the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day ... teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Sister Barbara’s approach to education has focused on not just teaching reading, writing, English or math, but also opening up opportunities for learners to become engaged advocates for themselves and their communities.
She grew up in nearby St. Paul, Ore., and spoke fondly about the influence it had on the direction of her career. She was the oldest of eight children and while still in high school helped supplement the family income by working in the fields and on the farm.
“You might say we were poor but I didn’t know it because everyone around me didn’t have much either,” she said. “Many of my early friends were migrants who came to work in the fields.”
Discovering her path
Sister Barbara believes it was during those years that she subconsciously made the decision for her life’s work. “I wanted to retain a connection with people like me — with people who didn’t have much,” she said.
Nobody in her family had ever gone to college and she never imagined that she would. That is, until she turned 17, “felt the call” and left for Sisters of the Holy Names and Marylhurst University.
“At Marylhust I discovered that I loved teaching. After graduating, I taught at the elementary level for many years and high school for eight years,” she said.
One of her last jobs in public education was a bittersweet moment for her. As head of the religion department and student activities in a Catholic high school that would suddenly be closed, she had to decide how to write the next chapter in her life.
“I had begun studying Spanish shortly before and realized that I wanted to work in a Hispanic community,” she said.
Soon she found herself in the lobby of Centro Cultural in Cornelius, volunteering “to sweep floors, wash dishes, anything to be of service.” Her “volunteer” status quickly turned into a position as education director, which lasted 10 years.
It was during her tenure at Centro Cultural that she met Bridget Cooke. The two collaborated on a number of programs, one of which formed the core concept of Adelante Mujeres.
While working with immigrant families, they noticed that some organizational structures made it difficult for women to participate in programs being offered. Sister Barbara and Cooke began working on a plan to develop classes specifically for women. What began as simple arts and crafts soon blossomed into much more.
“We asked the participants, “if you could do anything you wanted to do, what would it be?” Their answer came quickly,” said Sister Barbara. “We want an education.”
“It was then that Bridget and I made the decision to create Adelante Mujeres as a nonprofit organization,” she said. “We had no office, very little grant money and no staff.”
A modest start
Under the leadership of Sister Barbara and Cooke, the organization thrived. For the first five years Adelante Mujeres operated out of Sister Barbara’s home.
The tight confines and late hours were taking a toll on both co-founders. Sister Barbara shared this problem with her community leaders at Marylhurst. The work and accomplishments of Adelante Mujeres coincided with the mission of the sisters — namely, the education of impoverished families.
“Every year we wrote a grant request to the Sisters of the Holy Names,” she said. “The response from the Sisters was that in lieu of a grant they would fund our move to a real office.”
Within days a place was found and within hours of signing the lease the move was complete.
I asked Sister Barbara where she thinks the organization will be at the end of the next 10 years.
“There is nothing we can’t do if we continue to get our message out to the right places,” she said.
While Adelante Mujeres has built a solid following among participants and the local community, the biggest challenge will come in the area of fundraising.
“They will need to continue to reach out to the business community and show how success benefits them directly and indirectly,” she said. “Building stronger families builds stronger communities ... and that is good for everyone.”
Even though she is retired from day-to-day responsibilities with Adelante Mujeres, I couldn’t help but notice the fire in her soft blue eyes and the passion in her voice when she talked about supporting Latinos in Washington County as they recognize opportunities for success and how to achieve them.
Today Adelante Mujeres serves more than 450 families each year and counts on the dedication of 800 community volunteers.
I am sure that as long as Adelante’s work continues to embody Sister Barbara’s passion and vision, the organization is going to enjoy even more success in the years to come.