Man on a mission
Legate Michael Vales puts his heart and soul into helping kids learn to read . . .
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Michael Vales lost everything he had — his home, his wife’s dental practice and a housing development that he had poured his heart and soul into.
Of all the properties Vales had developed over the years as a licensed general contractor, Filmore Parc Apartments was closest to his heart. He had built it for working-class families and it included an award-winning educational facility, the Mirabeau Family Learning Center for children and adults.
“After Katrina, all I had left was my rosary,” said Vales, a member of Legatus’ New Orleans Chapter. “We lost 150,000 square feet of housing on seven acres of land. We came back to ruin. It was on a scale which was unimaginable.”
Vales and his wife Denice could have collected their insurance and walked away. There was no obligation to stay. But stay they did.
Vales raised $30 million and rebuilt the Filmore Parc Apartments — 41 buildings for 164 lower-income families — and the Mirabeau Family Learning Center (MFLC). The new learning center was finished in August 2011. While MFLC had focused on both adults and children before Katrina, today its focus is on helping children become proficient readers.
From 1986 to 1988, Vales was involved in a study commissioned by the Ford Foundation called “Towards a More Perfect Union: Basic Skills, Poor Families and Our Economic Future.” The study proved a link between urban poverty and the lack of basic skills.
It concluded that the cycle of poverty could be broken through devoting a “learning space” in assisted housing. As a result, Vales decided to test the study by building one himself. MFLC’s doors opened in 1992 with the goal of expanding the skills of working class individuals and families.
From 1992 to 2005, MFLC helped hundreds of people get their GED (high school equivalency), go to college, qualify for vocational school or find meaningful work. They also had an after-school program for children. The center served 1,230 individuals and 1,050 families.
But after Katrina barreled through the region destroying Filmore Parc and MFLC, it was back to square one for Vales.
“Moving forward in the post-Katrina environment, we wanted to offer a service that would differentiate it as a service program,” Vales said. “Based on our models and experience, we felt our best focus needed to be with the children. This led to our network with the Sisters of Notre Dame.” Funding for adult training programs had also shifted post-Katrina, so that these types of centers are now mandated by law to be at community colleges in New Orleans.
The Sisters of Notre Dame, an international order with roots in Germany, are known for their work as educators of poor children. Several sisters answered an ad to help staff MFLC in 2009. Their educational background was impressive enough to convince Vales to hire them.
“For four years, I had investigated a cognitive program called the BrainPower program,” said Sr. Mary Ellen Schroeder, SND, codirector of MFLC. “It sharpens the brain so that it can learn better and process more efficiently.”
BrainPower is part of the Phonemic Awareness Skill Set Assessment Program (PASS), which is designed to help children become capable readers in the first, second and third grades. The MFLC makes the web-based BrainPower program available to young children living at Filmore Parc Apartments — as well as those at the nearby Holy Ghost Catholic School in Central City, New Orleans. The learning center, located on the Filmore Parc property, has 20 computers, a smart-board and, most importantly, four dedicated Sisters of Notre Dame.
“We’ve had tremendous success,” said Sr. Schroeder. “We combine it with coaching and mentoring to help them stick with it.”
At MFLC, the nuns operate PASS as a free after-school program. They also help the children with their homework. During the day, the nuns help younger kids at Holy Ghost Catholic School with PASS during school hours. The Sisters hope to expand the program to other local schools next year.
“One thing we see in the students — here and at Holy Ghost — is the confidence this program gives. We see it over and over again,” said Sr. Mary Nancy Vance, SND, the other MFLC co-director.
“My son Kevin just finished the first grade at Holy Ghost,” said Adrian Poret, whose son participated in the PASS program this year. “He needed more help with reading and recognizing vowels. By the end of the school year, he was learning to read. I was really nervous, but he embraced it. I was so proud of him.”
In fact, Sr. Vance says the vast majority of children who take the PASS program successfully complete an oral/reading fluency test by the end of the first grade.
“If you look at educational issues downstream, like the eighth grade,” he said, “you see lots of children who still have challenges with the basic skills. Americans need these skills to compete in the 21st century. To get to the fundamental building blocks we have to develop phonemic awareness skills — and making sure that when kids graduate, they are capable readers.”
Vales believes these strong readers will enrich their community for years to come.
“To me it was very simple. We were working to build housing for certain groups of families and children. And they fit into a certain income range. We know that if their basic skills could get to a high degree of mastery, they could increase their household income. When you increase household income, the city becomes more affluent, bringing in more goods and services. Business grows and communities prosper.”
Father Neal McDermott, OP, a chaplain for Legatus’ New Orleans Chapter, has known Vales ever since the entrepreneur was a young student at Loyola University. The priest says he could not be more pleased with Vales’ endeavors.
“He’s gone from nothing to success,” Fr. McDermott said. “He’s helping children read in school. He’s the youngest member of Legatus here in New Orleans. He’s loving to his mother. He’s taken care of his brothers and given them jobs. He’s a committed Catholic with a generous heart. I’ve been so touched by what he has done with his life. I’m really proud of him.”
But for Vales, founding the learning center was simply an opportunity to do the right thing. He credits his father, who died when Vales was 16, with teaching him to be a “man for others.” The senior Vales fought in D-Day and always talked about the importance of civil and human rights.
“Our community was in its greatest hour of need after Katrina,” he said. “We stood firm and continued with the mission.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.