The Literacy Project provides free high school equivalency preparation for adults in Franklin and Hampshire counties – and they recently celebrated with the first in-person graduation ceremony since the start of the pandemic.  

In addition to this milestone, the organization also celebrated Bloomsday, a worldwide literary festival commemorating and featuring the work of Irish Author James Joyce.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Executive Director Judith Roberts, recent graduate Debb Gonzalez, and harpist and singer Rosemary Caine to learn more about the graduation and the connection between Bloomsday and the Literacy Project. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Literacy Project, which provides free high school equivalency preparation for adults in Franklin and Hampshire counties, recently celebrated its first in-person graduation ceremony since the start of the pandemic.

In addition to this milestone, the organization also celebrated Bloomsday, a worldwide literary festival commemorating the work of Irish author James Joyce.

I spoke with the executive director and others to learn more about the graduation and the connection between Bloomsday and the Literacy Project.

Judith Roberts, The Literacy Project: It was so wonderful, and we had about 300 people in attendance under big tent on the lawn at Greenfield Community College.

And we were just so thrilled and proud of our graduates, and it was so wonderful to be together in person. We haven’t had a graduation since 2019 and it was fabulous. We had five student speakers and one of them is here with us today.

Zydalis Bauer: So Debb, congratulations, first of all, on graduating from the Literacy Project. The last time we saw you, you were talking about how excited you were for this graduation.

So, tell me, what did it mean to you to be able to walk across that stage in your cap and gown?

Debb Gonzalez, The Literacy Project Graduate: It felt amazing. It was truly a blessing for me to be able to see graduation and support my classmates. It was a really great feeling.

Zydalis Bauer: And I understand that you also were one of the speakers for the class, and so how did it feel to address your class in such a momentous occasion?

Debb Gonzalez: I will cherish it forever. It was — it was really good. I got to speak how I feel and my struggle and to really put out there that, you know, dreams do come true. It’s — it’s a blessing — it was a blessing. I loved that day.

Zydalis Bauer: So, tell me a little bit about how the Literacy Project has changed your life and what’s next for you after this graduation?

Debb Gonzalez: I’m definitely part of Literacy Project family, so that is exciting. And to know that I always have support from them, whether I’m in college or doing other things in life to have support is really, really comforting.

And… I’m going to do a lot of things. I’m going to do social work, entrepreneurship, psychology courses. I’m going to dabble in everything that I can.

Zydalis Bauer: Last time I saw you, I remember you said you’re going to be in school till you’re about 80 or 90 years old. So, I’m sure we’ll — we’ll circle back and we’ll do another interview to see how it’s going when you’re still in school at that age.

Debb Gonzalez: Definitely! I would love that.

Zydalis Bauer: So, Judith, on top of the graduation, you also have another major annual event, which is Bloomsday. So, tell me a little bit about what is Bloomsday?

Judith Roberts: So, Bloomsday is the day that commemorates the famous novel by James Joyce. This is the 100th centennial, and we celebrate literature and reading every day.

So, we’ve picked this as a literary celebration for the Literacy Project, and we have the lovely Rosemary Caine to talk about it, who is producing this beautiful music and lyrical poetry and readings from the novel by James Joyce.

Zydalis Bauer: Yeah, so Rosie, please tell me about your role in Bloomsday and how it’s been for you.

Rosemary Caine, Musicologist: Well, I feel as if I’m the representative of James Joyce here in Western Mass, I really have a debt of responsibility to the culture from which James Joyce was sprung and my own love of reading and now my connection with the Literacy Project, which has given me insights I might not have had ten years ago when I was a mere volunteer musician.

But now, I’ve been in the classrooms, and I have seen what happens there. I have seen the magic and the inspiration of people who are brave enough. You know, I was in an English class — to be brave enough at the age of 53 to go back into an algebra class. So — so that’s that part of it.

And — and so, that just keeps the motivation alive to keep working on the artistic part of that kind of collaboration between the Literacy Project and my group, who are Wild Irish women. It’s a group that I founded, and I wrote one musical called “The Wild Irish Women of James Joyce.” And so, we have featured some of that and, you know, other pieces. James Joyce himself was a marvelous tenor, and he loved the songs that became that came from the poetry of William Butler Yeats and — and Irish traditional music.

So, it’s across the board, a kind of representative compilation of all of that world that fed into James Joyce’s inspiration and of course, the great book itself, which we could talk about all day.

Zydalis Bauer: And let’s — let’s go back to a little bit about that inspiration you’re talking about that the Literacy Project, you know, kind of gives you when you’re part of it.

Judith, talk to me about the connection of Bloomsday and the Literacy Project and why it makes sense to have this type of event for your organization.

Judith Roberts: Our students are studying in five subject areas in order to pass the high school equivalency test. And they’re working hard, very hard, to pass this test, which is not easy. And yet along the way, our students fall in love with reading, they fall in love with writing, and some even fall in love with math.

And so, to link that together with the Bloomsday audience who love reading and love literature, it’s a perfect connection between our students’ relentless devotion to reading and writing, and lovers of James Joyce, who are already predisposed to love literature.

Zydalis Bauer: And I want to go back to a point that Rosie made, talking about seeing these people that are fearless, you know, adults that are fearless to go back to school. And Judith, you shared an anecdote with me about a 56-year-old gentleman who fell in love with novels because of the Literacy Project. And before that, he could only read well enough to read sports scores in the newspaper. So, that is such an amazing story.

And I want to ask, Debb, how has the Literacy Project changed you and your kind of outlook when it comes to literacy?

Debb Gonzalez: So, because of the — the writing class that I was part of, it really helped me heal a lot of trauma that I have dealt with for 25 years. So, the writing just became so, so inspiring. And I feel like almost like a Mozart and a Beethoven — when I’m writing, I’m just like so inspired and I’m in the moment and it’s just it really has helped me.

The Literacy Project has helped me with the book club and the writing class, so I’m very happy for that.

Zydalis Bauer: Judith, what does it mean to you? You’ve been part of this organization for so long, and when you see a student like Debb and you hear those stories about the 50 — 56-year-old gentleman with the reading, I mean, what does that mean to you to see all of this impact that that this organization is having on the area?

Judith Roberts: Well, it’s a great work. We love this work. And — and so rewarding to see. I mean, watching the students walk across the stage at graduation is the greatest reward for us. And — and we’re just so proud.

And it takes a lot of courage to walk through our doors and say, “I need to learn as an adult.” I’m — I’m a person that learned as an adult. And it’s — it’s not an easy thing to do.

And… but once people join us, we hope they’ll always be a part of our community of readers and writers and math problem solvers and going on moving on in life to a better life for themselves and their families.