Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thanksgiving celebration at North Campus

There is something simple and meaningful about Thanksgiving that appeals to a deep need in the human heart. To share a  good meal in good company in a spirit of gratitude and joy, nourishes the soul as well as the body. While most of us delight in the pleasures of roast Turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, we savor even more the ambiance of the day: gathering around a table laden with stories and laughter as  well as food and drink..

Yet, for many of the Adult Education students at UNM-G, the simple beauty of Thanksgiving is merely a fantasy in pre-Christmas advertising. There is little money for the traditional feast, a number of family and friends are scattered across the vastness of New Mexico and Arizona, or perhaps have been lost to tragic circumstances--killed by a drunk driver or an abusive spouse or suicide. Sometimes a gathering is held, but too much to drink ignites an already difficult and dysfunctional situation, so the celebration ends abruptly with hostility and anger.

Such are the tales our Adult Education staff hear daily, so creating a warm, welcoming, peaceful and delicious Thanksgiving at the North Campus has become an important tradition for us, providing our students an opportunity to nourish body and soul Our celebration includes giving students and staff the opportunity to reflect on our time together and express the hearfelt gratitude we share for our  relationship.

Our North Campus tradition not only includes the much anticipated meal of turkey with all of the fixins, but we arrange one of our classrooms as a dining room, complete with table clothes and centerpieces, and although we do use paper plates, napkins, and plastic utensils, we find these items in colors and designs appropriate to the season and set the tables with a warm elegance. Soft music plays in the background, and each table accomodates four to eight people.

This year the students received a formal invitation to our Thanksgiving Luncheon that was held on Tuesday, November 26. The invitation requested an RSVP and professional attire. Not only did the RSVP give us an idea of how many would be attending, but we wanted the students to learn about more formal events which require timely responses and certain styles of clothing.

The meal was generously sponsored by McGraw-Hill through their regional Assessment Consultant Gladys Recinos, who works closely with our program, and the local Cracker Barrel restaurant Assistant Manager, Jim Hutchinson.

Because many of our students are unable to afford a Thanksgiving feast in their homes, they eagerly asked if grandparents, children, and spouses could attend. We could not say no, and although our request for extra meals came at the last minute, Ms. Recinos and Mr. Hutchinson did not hesitate to include more food so that everyone could enjoy the meal.

Of course, there's more to a feast than the food, so with the assistance of our division--Community-based Education and Workforce Development-- we were given additional funding to purchase drinks and paper products. Louise Lopez from Community Education graciously arrived at Wal-Mart first thing Tuesday morning to help  buy the juice and coffee, cups, plates and the like. Then a trip was made to Cracker Barrel. Mr. Hutchinson and staff loaded a pick-up with boxes and boxes of our well-packaged feast so we could transport it to North Campus.

After some last minute organizing details, a buffet was set up in the lobby:  turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, corn, carrots, corn muffins, biscuits, and pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies.

Students arrived dressed in their best clothes accompanied by grandmas and babies, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and in-laws of all ages. The rich aromas filled our little school with the "classic" scent of Thanksgiving.  Smiles and expressions of delight filled the building with joy as everyone admired the abundant feast and the lovely dining room. Students helped their families to the tables and invited their single classmates to come join them. Our staff stationed at the buffet, served the students who proudly introduced their teachers to their families. We were also pleased that our colleagues Lousie Lopez and Denise Silva, our Division Chair, LD Lovett, and Ms. Recinos could join us.

We shared our gratitude for our students' good work and dedication, and recognized the struggles they overcome to attend classes (we have a number of students who hitch hike 30-60miles to get here!) Then as everyone began eating, the room filled with laughter and stories and languages---English and Navajo, Chinese and Spanish intermingling, weaving around us all a tapestry of friendship.

Gently and gradually, as folks finished eating, they were invited into our computer lab where art supplies were laid out, so they could design and create stained glass-like designs on brown paper bags to be  used as luminarias that our program will be contributing to the "Holiday in New Mexico" event at the UNM-G main campus on December 12. All of this done with the creative guidance of our art teacher and ESL student, Vladimiro Pino, a wise teacher and talented artist from Peru.

As the day wound down, Ms. Recinos and LD lingered with students, listening to stories, appreciating the diverse ways the students came to our program and the interesting and varied ways they earn their livings.

Finally, it was time to clean up, and as we set to work, we were joined by a special older woman who had also been invited to the celebration. Miss Mary, as she is fondly known, mostly lives on the streets around North Campus and is an honory staff member. She sweeps the entry way, mops the floor, keeps the kitchen clean, and enjoys the companionship of our students and staff who often offer her lunch or a cup of coffee or a coat or a ride as she needs it.

UNM-G North is a small campus tucked behind a vacant lot and an auto glass business. We are surrounded by a chain link fence, and the roar of trucks on I-40 and the rumble of trains form the sound track to our days. Yet this humble school, located in one of Gallup's poorest neighbors, has heart, inspires hope, and is home to some truly remarkable students for whom we are thankful indeed!

(Written by Laura Jijon, Director, ABE Program)


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