Martha’s Vineyarders capitalize on Adult Community Education

John Hough Jr. teaches the Creative Writing Workshop. To his right is Jake Burton-Sundman, to his left, Marnie Gauley. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

We all know that the choices we make determine how we will live. Sometimes taking action is the hard part.

Adult Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV) provides both life-changing choices to Island residents and an environment that encourages taking action. Over the past three years, a consistent thread of extraordinary stories is emerging from the rejuvenated adult education program.

Last year, ACE courses attracted 719 Islanders, according to director Lynn Ditchfield, an Edgartown resident. Some no doubt took more than one course, so there’s no knowing how many individuals participated. A self-funded bootstrap operation, ACE is in a survive-then-thrive mode, with database-building an ongoing project.

There’s no doubt, however, that ACE provides an opportunity for life changes ranging from long-delayed yearnings, learning a skill to get a better job and standard of living right now, as well as education for long-range career building. People like Marie Reid, Lorena Crespo, and Fern Thomas are using ACE education opportunities to expand their lives.

Ms. Thomas, a New York City native, had a newly-minted sociology degree from Northeastern University a few decades ago, before marriage, three sons, and a divorce. She found herself moving to the Island “to raise my kids in a good environment.”

They are all now in college. “I found myself in a transition period,” Ms. Thomas said. “I knew my college skills wouldn’t translate easily in the world we live in today but I was uncomfortable with the prospect of returning to a large college campus with lots of young people.

“Then I bumped into Lynn, almost literally. We were at a high school event, sitting near each other, and we began talking. I told her I wanted to get back to school and my fears about it. For the next six months, whenever we met, she encouraged me. I guess it’s true that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. She gave me an opportunity to take an ACE course in teaching language and literature through the arts.”

Ms. Thomas’s voice became animated as she recalled the experience. “I learned I had artistic skills. That I could teach — stand in front of a group and teach! With Lynn’s help, we’ve developed a proposal for funding a voice and movement therapy program. It may happen. And I can consider a master’s degree,” she said, adding she is also taking a three-part medical training practicum at ACE that leads to certification as a medical assistant.

Ms. Thomas also volunteers at Red Cross and Hospice among other places, working, learning and polishing her skills. She described herself as “unstuck” today “and that’s because of Lynn. What Lynn really does is help people get unstuck,” she said.

Evelyn Vertefeuille began working on an associate degree at Bunker Hill Community College more than 20 years ago, then moved with her husband to the Island. She’s been working with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services for the past 17 years in early childhood development programs, her current area of interest at ACE.

“A couple of years ago, we began hearing about ACE and that ACE was offering courses through Cape Cod Community College,” Ms. Vertefeuille said. “I took a couple of courses online in the past, but taking courses in a classroom is a hundred per cent better. You learn from other students and have direct interaction with a teacher. If I had to go off-Island for classes, I just couldn’t do it. I’m going slowly — one class at a time. But I have momentum. I feel like I’m doing something, that I’m not in a rut.”

For Marie Reid and Lorena Crespo, ACE has been their window to a new world. Ms. Reid is a native Jamaican who is raising two children and working hard.

“Two of my friends and I were talking about getting our [General Educational Development] GEDs during our break one day,” Ms. Reid said. “I went to the high school and they sent me to Lynn [Ditchfield] and I enrolled in the Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) program. I can get a better job, maybe go to college, make a better life for my kids.

“I made my friends come with me to ACE courses. We are like the Three Musketeers. ACE has been a major help to me and to other people who have dreams.”

Ms. Crespo moved to the Island with two sons from her home in Ecuador more than five years ago to rejoin her husband, who had found work here. “Moving here was scary,” she said. “My English was very poor. I knew ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘you’re welcome.’

“At least my limited English was polite,” Ms. Crespo laughed. “Lynn made it comfortable to learn. I made friends in the classroom and began to feel like part of the community.”

Today, a graduate of the ACE English as a Second Language (ESL) course and an immersion in an ACE seminar on Brazilian culture, Ms. Crespo works in the Head Start program in the Brazilian community and acts as an interpreter when needed.

There are many other success stories behind the courses offered last year. They all include grateful people — both students and teachers — who have been nurtured and pushed along by Ms. Ditchfield. And ACE MV continues to grow as a place to help people fulfill their dreams.

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