Tag Archives: Mercy Learning Center


Twenty years ago, when Tammy Barry moved from New Jersey to Westport, her neighbor — a nun — suggested she get involved with Mercy Learning Center.

The Bridgeport organization — providing literacy and life skills training to low-income women — was run by nuns.

Today it’s a secular non-profit. It serves — and changes the lives — of hundreds of women a year.

Tammy Barry

Barry has been intimately involved since she moved here. She now runs Mercy’s mother/child reading program. After each session — which includes singing and parent education — everyone goes home with a new copy of the book they’ve read.

With her 3 children grown and graduated from Staples High School, Berry also tutors English and life skills.

Barry calls her group — 5 native Spanish and Portuguese speakers, in their 30s through 50s — “incredible. I love them. They have such energy, and are so eager to learn. They ask great questions, and help each other out so well.”

A 53-year-old gets up at 5:30 every morning, to get her kids ready for school. She works 5 days a week — then goes to Mercy, working on her GED.

“I’d be exhausted,” Barry says. “But she’s so happy to be there. She’s a role model for all of us.”

All of the women, Barry says, are “driven, grateful, and always smiling.”

Tammy Barry (center), and her hard-working but always-smiling students.

Mercy Learning Center is wonderful. It fills a gaping need, just a few miles from Westport.

But with over 100 women on the waiting list, it needs more volunteers.

“You don’t need to be a teacher,” Barry explains. “The curriculum tells you exactly what to do. You don’t have to speak a 2nd language, either.”

Tutors come from all over Fairfield County. They’re all ages — from retirees to young people who leave work early, or go in late.

They teach English, math, science, civics, technology and computer skills. They help prepare their students for high school equivalency and US citizenship exams, and for college and careers.

Tutor coordinators and a curriculum manager help volunteers who have questions or concerns.

Twenty years after she started volunteering at Mercy Learning Center, Tammy Barry is more committed than ever.

Now she wants you to commit to Mercy too.

(For more information or to volunteer, contact Lynn Gabriel or Erica Hoffman: 203-334-6699; lynn.gabriel@mercylearningcenter.org; erica.hoffman@mercylearningcenter.org)

Unsung Hero #14

As a new school year begins, it’s appropriate that this week’s Unsung Hero is a former teacher.

Generations of Staples High School students revered Gerry Kuroghlian. For nearly 40 years, “Dr. K” — his doctorate was from the University of Illinois, with an undergrad degree from the University of Virginia — taught Westport teenagers how to write, how to think, and how to act.

Dr. Gerry Kuroghlian

His challenging classes like “Myth and Bible” were as demanding as college-level courses. But he never forgot that he was working with still-unformed boys and girls. His greatest delight came from helping mold them into active, concerned citizens of the world.

Kuroghlian was totally invested in the life of Staples. If there was a play, concert or athletic event, he was there.

He never missed an Eagle Scout ceremony, celebratory dinner or parent’s funeral either.

When Kuroghlian retired in 2008, some people wondered how he’d fill his days.

They needn’t have worried.

Kuroghlian quickly became one of Mercy Learning Center‘s most active volunteers.

He taught ESL at the heralded Bridgeport women’s literacy and life-skills center. His new students — women from Mexico, Bangladesh and all points in between — loved him.

He returned the admiration.

“These are heroic people,” Kuroghlian says admiringly. “They’re moms, housekeepers, breadwinners — they do it all. They’ve got multi-tasking down to a science.

Kuroghlian calls these women “the best students I’ve ever had. They get up, get their kids ready for school, catch a city bus, and arrive promptly by 9 a.m.

“No one is ever late. No one ever has not done the homework,” he says admiringly. “They’re motivated to learn, and they’re completely unafraid to ask questions if they don’t understand something. They’re amazing.”

After class, the women work on computers. They also go on field trips. When Kuroghlian took them to a library, they learned how to get library cards for their kids.

Kuroghlian is equally involved at Kolbe Cathedral High School. He spends most afternoons at the Bridgeport private school, as a tutor, SAT and ACT advisor, and college application essay guide. Thanks in part to his help, virtually every graduate for nearly a decade has gone on to college.

Gerry Kuroghlian works with a Kolbe Cathedral senior on his college essay.

At Kolbe, Kuroghlian organizes cultural field trips to Fairfield University and New York City. Just as he did at Staples, he attends sports events, chaperones the prom, and continually shares his philosophy that it is the responsibility of each individual to make a difference.

He also arranged for over 1,000 books to be donated to the library.

In his spare time (!), Kuroghlian works with national education organizations, cancer and diabetes groups, the Westport Library and United Church of Christ.

Nearly 10 years after “retiring,” Dr. K. shows no signs of slowing down.

Why should he? He’s continuing the work he loves: Showing teenagers how to make their mark on the world, by doing it himself.

(To nominate an unsung hero, email dwoog@optonline.net. Hat tip: Lynn U. Miller)

Women Make Westporters Much More AWARE

One of the joys of publishing “06880” is the chance tell stories of Westporters who quietly — but very effectively — do wonderful things for others. Many folks volunteer their time with organizations that — while very important — many of us never hear of.

Were you aware of AWARE?

Founded over 20 years ago in New York by Amy Saperstein and friends, the goal is to make a difference in the lives of women and girls. (AWARE stands for Assisting Women through Action, Resources and Education.)

When Amy moved to Westport, she launched a local chapter.

AWARE women, at a fundraiser for Mercy Learning Center. From left: Deb Parnes, Kim Perlen, Amy Saperstein, Erica Davis, Johanna Kiev and Jennifer Seymour.

AWARE women, at a fundraiser for Mercy Learning Center. From left: Deb Parnes, Kim Perlen, Amy Saperstein, Erica Davis, Johanna Kiev and Jennifer Seymour.

Each year the group selects a women’s cause, then partners with a charity to benefit it. Through a fundraiser, hands-on activity and educational event, AWARE shines a light on a different meaningful women’s issue. Previous partnerships have included Mercy Learning Center, and an organization to aid victims of sex trafficking.

This year, AWARE supports female veterans. The Westport chapter has partnered with Female Soldiers: Forgotten Heroes, a Bridgeport transitional home.

Once a month, AWARE volunteers serve dinner to homeless female vets there. They work with “AWARE kids” to assemble diaper bags filled with newborn supplies, for pregnant veterans in need. And they organized a panel discussion in Westport, with female veterans from 4 military branches.

"AWARE Kids" filled diaper bags for pregnant female veterans.

“AWARE Kids” filled diaper bags for pregnant female veterans.

Westport Michelle Hogue says it is “refreshing to volunteer with a diverse group of women. We learn and listen first, then engage and assist.”

Hogue hosts this year’s cocktail party fundraiser (Saturday, April 30, 7 p.m.).

But that’s not the only big event to be “aware” of.

In June — at the National Organization for Women’s 50th anniversary gala — they’ll receive NOW’s Intrepid Award.

That’s pretty cool.

But nowhere near as cool as the work these Westporters do — under the radar, but way over and above — for women beyond our town borders.

(For tickets and more information on AWARE’s April 30 fundraiser, click here. To learn about upcoming meetings and events, email AwareCt@gmail.com.) 


Gerry Kuroghlian may be the most passionate person I know.

For over 40 years, his passion was teaching English. Generations of Staples students were inspired by his incredible enthusiasm for Shakespeare, his “Myth and Bible” course, writing, and everything else associated with the school.

Dr. Gerry Kuroghlian

Dr. Gerry Kuroghlian

Gerry retired 4 years ago. His passions now are helping seniors at Bridgeport’s Kolbe Cathedral High School with their college essays, and tutoring at Mercy Learning Center.

Mercy — also in Bridgeport — provides basic literacy and life skills training to low-income, under-educated, marginalized women. It’s an amazing organization, and dozens of Westporters donate their time and energy there too.

Over Thanksgiving, Gerry and his wife Ellen were enjoying a stay at the Hawthorne Inn in Concord, Massachusetts. They began chatting with another family. Gerry mentioned Mercy Learning Center. The family wanted to know more. Gerry happily told them all he knew. That was that.

Until this week.

Mercy Learning Center called to tell Gerry they’d received a $10,000 donation from strangers. It was the family he’d told all about Mercy.

Some call it a miracle.

I call it the kind of thing that happens when Gerry Kuroghlian spreads his warmth and passion with whomever he meets.

Mercy Learning Center

“Dr. K” Gives Back

When Gerry Kuroghlian retired in 2008 after 43 years as a Staples English teacher, he knew he would not spend leisurely hours playing golf.

If you know “Dr. K” — and everyone in Westport does — you’d know he’s not a leisurely guy.  And he is definitely not a golfer.

Dr. Gerald Kuroghlian

As soon as he left Staples, Kuroghlian headed in the opposite direction:  to Bridgeport, the city where he was born and spent his early years.  Following the lead of Westporters he knew and admired — Dick Leonard, Doris Shiller and dozens of others — he volunteered at Mercy Learning Center.

Last year he taught GED classes at the much-heraled women’s literacy and life-skills center.  This year he’s teaching English as a Second Language — influencing (and learning from) women from Mexico, Bangladesh and all points in between.

“These are heroic people,” Kuroghlian says admiringly.

“They’re moms, housekeepers, breadwinners — they do it all.  They’ve got multi-tasking down to a science.

Kuroghlian calls these women “the best students I’ve ever had.”  They get up, get their kids ready for school, catch a city bus, and arrive promptly by 9 a.m.

“No one is ever late.  No one ever has not done the homework,” he says admiringly.  “They’re motivated to learn, and they’re completely unafraid to ask questions if they don’t understand something.  They’re amazing.”

After class, the women work on computers.  They also go on field trips.

Kuroghlian recently took them to the library.  They paid particular attention to the children’s section, where they learned how to get library cards for their kids.

“These woman are totally motivated to improve the lives of their children,” he says.

But Mercy Learning Center is only part of Kuroghlian’s rich life.  He also volunteers at Kolbe Cathedral, the small parochial school in Bridgeport.

Westporter Bill Mitchell got Kuroghlian involved.  Mitchell is a “Shepherd” — someone who provides financial assistance and mentorship to a student during his 4 years at Kolbe — and when he introduced Kuroghlian to the school and its students, “Dr. K” was hooked.

The English instructor works with all 60 seniors on their college essays.  He offers an objective eye, and a lifetime of experience in helping the Bridgeport teenagers bring personal, individual voices to their writing.

“They’re great kids,” Kuroghlian says.  “They’re unbelievably polite, with firm handshakes — boys and girls.  They all have jobs, and do an incredible job balancing school, sports and work.”

Having watched Bridgeport decline so far from its heyday, Kuroghlian feels good about his current work — and the women and teens he works with.

“In Bridgeport, education is seen as a privilege — not something to take for granted.

“As a teacher, I’ve never felt more valued.  I’m rewarded not with money, but with thanks.

“The women at Mercy want a better life for their kids, and the kids at Kolbe want a better life for themselves.

“They all realize that education is their only way out, and they’re all killing themselves to get an education.  It’s a wonderful environment to be in.”

Bad News For Bridgeport

As Westport evaluates its response to the March storm, another disaster is unfolding 2 towns away.

A strong thunderstorm knocked down branches, and knocked out power, here yesterday.  Bridgeport fared far worse.  A tornado knocked down buildings, blew out windows, and turned that long-suffering city into a disaster zone.

Beyond volunteering at the Mercy Center, going to Sound Tigers games and driving through as quickly as possible on I-95, Westporters don’t have much to do with Bridgeport.

But today, more than ever, we are reminded what a difference a few miles makes.

Mercy Help

Mercy Learning Center, a literacy and life skills training program for women in Bridgeport, enjoys the support of many Westporters.  Each year, area residents donate thousands of volunteer hours as tutors — and thousands of dollars too.  But additional funds are always needed.

Fortunately, Mercy Learning Center is 1 of 10 finalists in the Better World Books Readers Choice Literacy Grant contest.  The winner gets $20,000.

Right now, Mercy is in 3rd place.  They’ve got until January 20 to win.  All it takes is an e-mail vote.  Click here for the link — and forward to friends!

(Here’s another Westport connection:  Geoff Schwarten — a 1996 Staples graduate — led the re-launch of Better World Books.  The organization collects used books and sells them online to raise money for literacy initiatives worldwide.)