CHICAGO — Emily Arvizu has written dozens of grant proposals in her seven years at the Tolton Center, an adult and family literacy program with five locations across Chicago.
But she said the easiest application she ever wrote was the one that won her colleague, Mary Ellen Lesniak, runner-up in the National Center for Family Literacy's 2013 Toyota Teacher of the Year awards.
Writing the application to nominate Lesniak "came very naturally," Arvizu said.
"Mary Ellen even joked, 'How come you don't write grants that quickly?' and I said, 'Because this is much easier.' Everything I'm writing here, I really strongly believe about her. It was an opportunity for me to sit down and think about how influential she's been in my life."
Lesniak is the English as a Second Language and family literacy coordinator for the Tolton Center, which offers free adult and family education across the city.
A few weeks after Arvizu submitted her nomination for the woman she calls "an incredible mentor," Lesniak received a call from the National Center for Family Literacy notifying her she was one of 10 finalists. "In almost no time," she says she got another call to say she'd won second place.
While the annual award, sponsored by Toyota for more than 20 years, is a meaningful honor in its own right, Lesniak says she's far more excited about the prize: a $2,500 grant to buy iPads for her classroom to help teach her students technological literacy.
Lesniak said the tablets will be invaluable for extension programs that take students outside the classroom, like the multiple field trips they take to museums and cultural destinations Downtown via public transit to hone their navigation skills.
"I really believe that with iPads and the tablets today, this is going to bridge the digital divide ... making technology more accessible to everyone," Lesniak said. "Many of our students have smartphones now, and once we show them the applications that can be used on the tablet — like thousands of free books, including an English-Spanish dictionary — they can also use some of those same programs on their phones when they leave our classroom."
Lesniak doesn't believe she was an obvious choice for the award, asserting that the recognition must be based on the impact the Tolton Center has on Chicago. But Arvizu says that's just Lesniak's usual modesty.
"Mary Ellen won't tell you any of this because she's very very humble, but she is wonderful. Absolutely, absolutely wonderful," Arvizu said.
"She's an incredible mentor, and leads by example. If she wants you to do something, she's right there pulling more than her fair share of the weight on a project. She's so encouraging, and sees these great skills in a person and then helps you to develop those skills, so that you have something to be proud of as well."