Sister Janet Woods RSM has a long and distinguished career in teaching and administration. But it was after she retired in 2007 that she found the most satisfying role of her career.
For the past 13 years Sr Janet has volunteered as the coordinator of Mamre Refugee Program on the grounds of CatholicCare teaching English to Sudanese women.
‘It was with mixed feelings that I first commenced volunteering as program coordinator in 2007,’ the former high school teacher said. ‘I loved teaching but I had never taught adults and my teaching subjects were science and mathematics, not English.’
But Sr Janet —a former principal of Our Lady of Mercy College Parramatta—had studied the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program and was eager to take on a new challenge.
‘I found that right from the first day, I loved it,’ she said. ‘I was inspired by the courageous Sudanese women who had left their familiar homeland and often family members and come to a land far away with a different language and customs.
‘Many had never been to school because of the continuous war in their country and English is a very difficult language to learn. But they tried so hard and were thrilled when they gradually mastered it and also began to understand some of the different customs.
‘On my part, my biggest challenge was to learn their names, and because they frequently wore wigs, to realise that it was not a new student just a new hair style!’
Not long after starting the role at Mamre House, which is part of CatholicCare Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains, Sr Janet took on another challenge—to get her bus licence so she could pick up the women and their children for class.
‘Along with two other volunteer drivers we travelled to the Penrith, St Marys and St Clair areas four days a week and later three days a week,’ she said. ‘In recent years this is no longer necessary because nearly all the women have obtained their licence and have their own cars.’
Sr Janet’s support of the women extended beyond the classroom, visiting each family when they had a baby and assisting 57 women to gain Australian Citizenship.
‘I was always delighted to attend the citizenship ceremonies and meet their families,’ she said. ‘We also celebrated later with the other women in the program with a lunch time party at Mamre. It was an occasion of great joy for those who gained their Australian citizenship and for their volunteer teachers.’
While English lessons were the main focus of the Mamre classes, the women also had the opportunity to attend health, nutrition, cooking, child studies and computer studies classes, and venture beyond their hometowns as a group to visit Canberra, the Sydney Aquarium and Balmoral Beach for swimming lessons. Sr Janet also travelled to South Sudan three times to visit schools and teach trainee teachers.
‘Another important aspect of the Mamre Refugee Program was the continual pastoral support we were able to provide to the women, with practical issues such as interpreting letters from the schools, helping with phone calls and many day-to-day aspects of living in a very different culture,’ Sr Janet said.
As coordinator of the Mamre Refugee Program, Sr Janet was supported by a small group of volunteers who assisted with the English teaching, the Citizenship classes and pastoral support. ‘The whole program relied heavily on the help of generous and skilled volunteers,’ she said.
Now, 13 years since she stepped into Mamre House to begin her volunteer role, she leaves with the fondest of memories and greatest pride in her students.
‘As I leave, I see a very different Mamre,’ Sr Janet said. ‘The women are much more self reliant and confident. Many have done other courses and gained qualifications and are now in the work force. Some of them fit in their jobs before and after their English classes. Their children too have done well at school with some now attending university.
‘So it is with a great deal of pride, satisfaction and gratitude that I look back over these years and I know that I have been blessed to have shared so many experiences with these wonderful, courageous spiritual women.’
The Mamre Refugee Program, Certificate in Spoken and Written English, is a certified program of Nepean Community College and delivered at Mamre House, on the grounds of CatholicCare Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains.