LaDelvin Walker intends to make sure her home community of Flint, Michigan, is represented well at the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) conference in Florida this September. The AmeriCorps service member, who is working with the Flint Recovery Corps at the Flint & Genesee Literacy Network, will be a keynote speaker at the conference, where she plans to share the story of her struggle to earn a GED and the organizations and individuals who helped her along the way.
In her role as a two-generational family navigator for the Literacy Network, Walker said she “helps families become their own literacy program” through PACT time, which stands for “parent and child together.”
“I’ve been in a literacy program, and I know what that can do for families,” she continued. “You learn so many valuable things — how to talk to your child, how you can help them learn in everyday situations, how to navigate a school system, how to manage your time. You don’t walk out the same person.”
Through her work as a family navigator, Walker said she’s found her purpose.
“Really, I’ve collided with it,” she said. “I know now that I’m supposed to speak with people and teach people.”
To that end, Walker intends to enroll in Mott Community College’s social work program as soon as she earns her GED, a goal she’s been alternately avoiding and working on for the past 20 years.
“I plan on telling them how I got from being desperate to getting to my destination, and that even when I reach that destination, it’s not going to be my last stop.”— LaDelvin Walker
The product of a loving, two-parent family, Walker says she did not face the same challenges that many struggling students deal with. But “school made me anxious,” she said of her K–12 years.
“Whenever it felt too difficult, I’d freeze up,” she said, adding that math was particularly difficult.
The middle school years, when she played the clarinet and was part of a bilingual team of students at Whittier Junior High School, were among the best. She “followed the band” to Flint Northern High School, but her phobia about math continued to trip her up academically. In her senior year, while earning A’s at the Genesee County Skill Center (now the Genesee Career Institute), she grew increasingly apprehensive about the math classes at her home school.
“I just quit going,” she said. “I attended all my other classes, but one day, my teacher at the Skill Center told me I was ‘disenrolled’ from school for unexcused absences. Because I was 16, I could legally check myself out of school, and I did that.”
From there, Walker checked herself back in to Flint’s Schools of Choice, an alternative high school. She spent a year there, “aced all her classes except math,” but never graduated. She made two tries at obtaining a GED, but again, the math portion of the certification test proved too difficult.
“So, I enrolled in cosmetology school, and became a nail tech,” she said.
Despite her lack of a diploma, Walker made a living for herself and her young son. Over the years, she also became the principal caretaker for her ailing mother, who died suddenly, leaving her daughter bereaved and more alone than she had ever imagined.
“It was my lowest point,” Walker said. “I was 33 years old, my mother was gone. I had a 3-year-old son and a 14-year-old mentally disturbed foster brother to care for. When I had to visit the DHS [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] to apply for cash assistance, I hit rock bottom. That does terrible things to your pride.”
In order to keep her DHS benefits, Walker was required to attend Work First, a program that offers a variety of services to help clients find and keep a job. One of her instructors, who saw potential in the young mother, encouraged her to complete her education.
“I remember she told me I was capable of flying alone, like an eagle,” Walker said. “She said that eagles and chickens were not the same, and she couldn’t understand why I was pretending to be a chicken.”
Taking the plunge, Walker enrolled in a family literacy course with an adult GED preparation component at Christ Enrichment Center. Through the program, she was able to enroll her youngest son at Cummings Great Expectations: An Early Childhood Center. It was there that she came to the attention of the staff of the Flint & Genesee Literacy Network.
“The parents were having a potluck at school to celebrate Black History Month, and I was asked to write a poem for the program,” she said. “JaNel, Danielle and Jeremiah, who were from the literacy center, heard me read ‘My Black Butterfly,’ and after the program, told me I did a really good job.”
A few months later, Walker received a call from the Flint & Genesee County Literacy Network, inviting her to interview for the position of two-generational family navigator. Offered through AmeriCorps, the position — which allowed her to work while continuing her studies to complete her GED — gave Walker the chance to counsel, teach and counter some of the despair she sees too often among struggling families.
“We noticed right away that LaDelvin had a confidence about her — an innate belief that she had something valuable to offer,” said JaNel Jamerson, director of the Flint & Genesee Literacy Network. “As a two-generational family navigator, she’s helped take our work to a depth we did not have before. She brings the perspective of those who use our services. It’s a perspective that often is missing in the kind of systems-building work we do.”
“It was the best thing I did,” Walker said of joining AmeriCorps and becoming a literacy service member. “It’s taught me the value of service and what it means to a community. This experience has shown me that even when you think you’re at your lowest, you can shine.”
In September, Walker will have the opportunity to shine — though she’s a bit nervous about it — as a “student speaker” for the NCFL conference. Notified this past June that she had been selected from a field of applicants to “share her story of determination, hard work and achievement,” Walker will speak at a general session that includes hundreds of educators representing a network of programs across 39 states.
“I plan on telling them how I got from being desperate to getting to my destination,” she said. “And that even when I reach that destination, it’s not going to be my last stop.”
(Editor’s Note: The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has provided support for Cummings Great Expectations: An Early Childhood Center, as well as multi-year support for the Flint & Genesee Literacy Network and the Flint National Service Accelerator program.)