As a Sylvania Franciscan, Sister Sharon White has always lived as a “joyful servant among all people,” but her current ministry truly emulates the phrase in the congregation’s mission Statement that says to “embrace the poor and marginalized”.
She works in a group of schools on the east side of St. Paul, Minneapolis where 95% of the students come from families that fall below the poverty level. Ninety percent (90%) of the families are of minority descent and 505 of the children are English language learners. Many of her students are sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants who fled the war-torn countries of Vietnam and Laos.
Sister Sharon is the program director for the East Side Learning Center (ESLC), which was established in 2001 to address the educational gaps of the residents of these neighborhoods. Reading was identified as the number one area of need because if a student can’t read, he or she won’t do well in school or be very productive later in life. The East Side Learning Center offers students free one-ono-one tutoring to help them improve their reading skills. It was started by the School sisters of Notre Dame with one sister and 19 students. Today it has programs in five schools and has impacted more than 1,100 students.
Sister Sharon joined the center in 2009 and as a native eastside, it was a bit of a coming home. She taught school and was principal in Minnesota and Ohio for more than 30 years, so she quickly realized the value the program offers at-risk students.
“These are hard-working people with a strong desire to succeed,” said Sister Sharon. “Unfortunately, many of them have low paying jobs, no cars and large families to take care of, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting to achieve. The program is geared for the early elementary grades because that is where the greatest impact can be made. Not only do we work with the students, but we also provide a network of resources for their parents. It’s not enough to help just the children. We need to include the whole family if we want to have long-term success.”
Working with the poor and disadvantaged is where the mission of the Sylvania Franciscans has come to life for Sister Sharon. Helping people find a future through education is her way of serving joyfully.