The Scene: 'American Dream' realized at LitNet Gala

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LENOX — Heartfelt stories and inspirational journeys ventured and shared by the students of the Literacy Network create the common threads that form a patchwork of ethnicity and diversity, of learning and believing, weaving together the multifaceted patterns that build community.

On Oct. 14, in the transformed Berkshire Country Day School gym, cascading strands of white lights glowed, symbolic of the hopeful paths taken to become citizens of the United States of America at the Literacy Network of South Berkshire's American Dream Gala, part of the American Dream Campaign to Learn-Reach-Thrive. Tickets to attend were $175 and close to 170 guests showed their support.

LitNet's noble mission is to serve the needs of immigrants and U.S.-born adult residents of Berkshire County by providing free, individualized one-on-one instruction in reading, high school equivalency test preparation, English for speakers of other languages and citizenship test preparation by providing generalized educational support and access to a network of community resources, all through a professional staff and a trained team of volunteer tutors.

Drinks, hors d'oeuvres and a silent auction began at 5:30 p.m., when servers dressed in black and white circled the guests with colorful displays of bites by Peter Platt of The Old Inn On the Green.

At the welcoming table, the bright smiles of LitNet's Educational Coordinator for Great Barrington Marcia Powdermaker and Office Manager Shelley Wojtkowski, made guests feel at home.

LitNet's Educational Coordinator for Lee, Mary Spina whirled about the vast room introducing her daughter, Michelle Schmidt, to the gala's guests. Schmidt was representing The Gilson Family Foundation. In June, the Marblehead-based foundation pledged to match up to $30,000 in donations made to LitNet's "American Dream Campaign," which culminated at the gala.

Schmidt and her brother, Peter John "PJ" Spina, of Colorado, oversee the foundation, which was founded in 2010 by their uncle, the Leo Gilson, and his wife, Lucy. Spina was unable to attend the gala.

In a brief interview at the event, Schmidt said, "We target small organizations that make a big impact ... Our mission statement is `care, cure and education,' and my brother Peter and I are here to carry on my uncle's wishes." Schmidt was accompanied by her husband Brian.

A touching story of the evening came from Cristhian Cabrera, of Lee, who came with his parents to the United States from Columbia over 13 years ago. His parents were students of LitNet. Today, Cabrera and his sister Katherin Phillips are passionate supporters.

"It's lovely to see not only people you know," said Cabrera, "but people that support diversity. It's majestic."

Cabrera is employed at Greylock Federal Credit Union in Lee.

Standing by Cabrera was LitNet tutor Maris Katsir and student William Zelada of Peru. Together they were captured in a moment with a photo and words of gratification from both teacher and student.

Before long, plates dressed with wedges of romaine lettuce covered in Parmesan shavings and croutons called guests to dinner. The tables were dotted with confetti and the proud faces of tutors alongside their students.

The president of LitNet's board of directors, Lucy Prashker, gave the opening remarks.

"Our campaign was kicked off in 2017 with a matching pledge of $30,000 from the Gilson Family Foundation. I'm so happy to welcome Michelle Schmidt and her husband Brian," Prashker said.

She added, "What does the `American Dream' mean? For me, the American Dream is all about opportunity and at LitNet the American dream is very much alive. In 2016, three of our students purchased homes, three of our students became U.S. Citizens, three of our students registered to vote, many were able to obtain previously out of reach jobs, and seven were able to secure significant promotions."

Tutors of LitNet were asked to stand in a commemorative toast to honor their service.

Prashker told them, "Nobody deserves LitNet's recognition more than you. To our tutors, you are the engine, the essence and the heart of Litnet. We thank you, we salute you and we commend you for your enormous generosity and commitment to your students and to LitNet. You are the best."

Executive Director Jennifer Vrabel spoke eloquently, thanking supporters and tutors. Where Prashker said the tutors were the heart of LitNet, Vrabel said her staff are the hands, commending Spina, Powdermaker and Wojtkowski.

Vrabel honored Lee Library Association board of directors President Mary Philpott and Lee Library Director Damon Vorce for housing Litnet inside the library's walls since 1991.

She said, "The gala is LitNet's single largest source of annual revenue for its education programs. Greylock Federal Credit Union offered their support of the American Dream with a pledge of $2,500."

The live auction began with a song and dance number by Alison Larkin, auctioneer, comedian, author and ambassador to the Jane Austin Literacy Foundation. Bids ranged from $50 to $1,000.

As a grand finale of the auction, Vrabel were presented with an oversized check of $30,000 from the Gilson Family Foundation.

Including The Gilson Family Foundation's matching gift, LitNet raised more than $90,000 from the gala and related American Dream Campaign initiatives.

"The outpouring of generosity in this room tonight has been amazing," Vrabel said. "I was so moved by all of the by all of the folks who kept raising their paddles during our live auction to pledge their financial support for LitNet, for education, and for the importance of community. For me, the whole evening has been an inspiring demonstration of how a group of people, working together, can truly make a difference."


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