Local Heroes: Sister Lenore Toscano, Opening Paths to Literacy

Sr. Lenore Toscano
Sr. Lenore Toscano

Sister Lenore Toscano became involved in adult education for immigrant women more than two decades ago. “My love is education, and particularly adult literacy,” says the Dominican Sister. She and other members of her Order wanted to “leave a legacy” behind them. “We wanted a way for the older sisters to use their skills as educators” and so they became involved in The Opening Word program started by Sr. Mary Ryan.

The focus of the program was on immigrant women. “We wanted to work with the women,” Sr. Lenore says, “because they had often been left behind educationally in their home countries.” After immigrating here, the women’s lives are consumed with work and caring for their families.

Women who join The Opening Word as students have a program that is designed around them. “We are not just committed to the course of study,” says Sr. Lenore, “we are committed to the person.” She has nine sisters who work full-time at the program and 140 volunteers. Personalization, she says, is crucial.  “We encourage our teachers to build relationships with the students, we are all about relationships.”

Immigrant women from Haiti, Poland, Afghanistan, Turkey, and all over Latin America are part of The Opening Word. They often come looking for English courses in order to help their children with their schoolwork. Others come so they can get better jobs. Many want to become citizens and they are attracted by the civics and citizenship preparation offered.

Sr. Lenore’s order set down roots in New York during the Know Nothing days before the Civil War to help new immigrants from Germany. Sr. Lenore has been a Dominican for 57 years and she says that “it is a demanding lifestyle, but I love it.” She says that she joined the Dominicans because “God said to do this and I just followed.” In her work with The Opening Word she says she has come to love the immigrant women “and to learn from their many cultures. I learned from their strength in coming here. It is really transforming for me to be with the women.”

Over the years, Sr. Lenore has also helped transform the lives of the immigrant women that she works beside. She will be honored for her work by CARECEN on November 20.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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