Former JP resident Juval Racelis has only lived in Boston for three years, but he’s made a big difference in the lives of many women at Rosie’s Place in the South End, a nonprofit that provides meals and other services to poor and homeless women.
When he moved to Boston in the fall of 2016 for his teaching job at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Racelis said he knew he wanted a volunteer opportunity where he could serve underprivileged communities, as he already had a history of working with those populations. Originally from Houston, Racelis worked in a literacy center there where he realized that there are a “lot of missed opportunities for populations that had different educational backgrounds,” he said, and many of those folks face a barrier when trying to enter literacy programs due to economic status or different literacy rates.
Racelis found Rosie’s Place online and also heard about it through a colleague, and in January 2017, he and the college went to the nonprofit for orientation. After volunteering in their kitchen and pantry, Racelis learned about the Women’s Education Center (WEC) at Rosie’s Place, where volunteer instructors teach literacy and writing to international and multilingual speakers.
“I thought that would be a great opportunity to do something in my wheelhouse,” Racelis said. As a college professor of writing, he said that teaching college students is different from teaching women and underprivileged minorities. “It’s a good opportunity to stretch my English teaching skills,” he said. He also felt that his work at the literacy center in Houston gave him a basis for teaching underserved populations.
Racelis said that one of the things he values about Rosie’s Place is that women are not questioned why they are there; they are welcomed in with open arms and given food and resources to make their lives easier.
“I’ve been teaching ESL and international students for over a decade,” Racelis said. He said that working at Rosie’s Place has helped him “become better aware of the different backgrounds that students come from and be more sensitive to the privilege I have coming from education,” he sad. “I can do many things I realize I’m taking for granted. I was reading on the train—not an activity that many of my students at Rosie’s Place often do.”
The WEC has six levels: pre-literacy, literacy, and up to level four. Racelis said he has taught all but two levels and has “learned a better understanding of what the students’ needs are and other ways I can possibly contribute to the community.”
He said that since volunteering at Rosie’s Place, he’s tried to find ways to donate or volunteer in the places where these women live, as he acknowledges that their communities are important. It’s made him a “more purposeful consumer,” he said, and tries to frequent businesses that contribute to Rosie’s Place.
He said that his volunteer work has also helped him with work with college students at Wentworth. Through getting a better understanding of what privileged means, he can talk about it with his college students, as a lot of them came from working class backgrounds. “Privilege comes in different ways,” he said.
Racelis said he’s ”been happy to grow into” contributing to the curriculum development at Rosie’s Place, as that is also something he’s had prior experience with. Figuring out what the goals of the students are and what their needs are in the community is a top priority for curriculum development.
For example, Racelis does an exercise with his pre-literacy students that involves weekly flyers from Tropical Foods supermarket on Melnea Cass Blvd. “We do these mockup shopping conversations,” he said, where lists are created based off of foods listed in the flyer. In addition to English, these exercises also teach women math skills that they can apply to their everyday lives. Pre-literacy students are also taught how to read a map, which Racelis said “strengthens their confidence in going to other places” that they may not be familiar with.
Higher level students have a much heavier focus on writing fluency and vocabulary building, Racelis said. They do exercises like looking at a picture, talking about it first, and then writing about it.
Racelis will be relocating to Brighton shortly, but he had no shortage of dedication to Jamaica Plain during his time as a JP resident. He was a member of the board of the Friends of the JP Library. He stepped down in July, but he helped coordinate the maker space and did a lot of fundraising for the library. Additionally, Racelis was on the board for the Community for Arts Commission, which coordinates with the Boston Arts Commission.
“Community engagement is important,” Racelis said. “JP’s community is really active; there’s somebody always doing something for the community. It made me want to participate and made me want to contribute and find ways to offer what I can do. It seemed that there was a lot of that going on and I really value that.”
Racelis will continue to volunteer at Rosie’s Place in the same capacity. He will teach in the winter, spring and fall, and is looking forward to the writing cafe in the winter, where a book is published of the women’s writing.
He said he may also volunteer for a few shifts in the kitchen again, as he admires the Rosie’s Place model for serving guests. Rather than the traditional “lunch line” to get food, women are seated at tables and served. “That level of respect is really something that’s quite valuable,” Racelis said. “Even the most basic needs like food” can be challenging for women who may be down on their luck, he said, adding that this level of attention was part of founder Kip Tiernan’s ethos. “You can still feel that at Rosie’s Place,” he said.