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Learning a new language can be hard. Music can make it easier.

Sometimes an opportunity is all you need to become a better version of yourself.

Learning a new language can be hard. Music can make it easier.

One day, during the fall of 2016, 60-year-old Olga was shopping in downtown Boston when she overheard several women raving about the English class they were taking.

Olga grew up in Moca, in the Dominican Republic. She came to the United States in 1993 with her daughter and lived with family in New Jersey at first, where she worked at a sweater factory. In 2014, she moved to Boston, where she lives today.

A self-described busybody, Olga hates wasting time. She would much rather use her time to improve herself. Now, in Boston, when she's not knitting or working as a seamstress at David's Bridal, she's crocheting, reading, or watching the news on television.


When Olga overheard these women, she had been looking for a place to take English classes for a long time. She marched over to them and asked about the classes, which they said were being offered for free at Rosie's Place in downtown Boston.

Image by Rosie's Place, used with permission.

Rosie's Place was founded in 1974 as the self-described "first women's shelter in the U.S." They help homeless and low-income women find opportunities to better their lives.

"Just tell me where it's located, and I'll find it," Olga says she told the women.

She immediately walked out of the store and headed to Harrison Avenue in downtown Boston. She says she missed the shelter at first, almost walking into a CVS instead. But when she did walk through the doors at Rosie's Place, she was instantly excited. She was told she qualified for their English courses and was given instructions to attend the next class. She hasn't stopped going back since.

These classes aren't just any classes, and that's where the story gets good.

Olga found out that she wouldn't be completing a typical "This is how you say 'dog,'" lecture type course. Instead, her classes would be designed by Berklee College of Music students. These students would be trying out new and exciting approaches that help people retain information through music.

Kevin Leong is one of those students. He's a graduate student at Berklee College of Music and an international student. Kevin has helped run and structure this program for the past year. Essentially, the program uses a specific tool — music, and songwriting in particular — to empower women, teaching them conversational English.

For the past semester, 10 to 15 women (including Olga) have committed to learning a new language with the help of these dedicated students. Kevin says there's an 82-year-old woman from China who inspires him because she refuses to take "no" for an answer. He says she said, "I don’t speak English, but it’s never too late to learn a new language.”

Most people learn faster with music because it's a powerful mnemonic tool. Songwriting and singing are memory aids.

For example, think of the alphabet song. The letters aren't linked to one another, but it's the music that binds the syllables together to give the song meaning.

That's why using songwriting helps students like Olga pick up English a little more quickly. By having them repeat the words in a song, it helps them practice articulation and better remember the words themselves.

Kevin Leong. Image from Berklee Graduate Studies Department, used with permission.

Kevin says the women in his class feel validated and thankful because they have a place to share their stories from the past while learning a new language. Through their collective songwriting, they've come to learn that one woman was a psychologist in her home country, another a hydraulic engineer, and another, a physician.

“To see some women travel from an hour and a half outside of Boston just to come to class to learn English ... is really inspiring," Kevin says. "To be able to be a part of that, and to make it interesting for them, and to see it being effective ... is extremely gratifying.”

For Olga, this class has made all the difference.

For one, she says she's never received so much loving attention as she has in these classes at Rosie's Place. She feels she's learned a lot in just four months and loves the way they teach. She also lives alone, so she looks forward to attending every class.

"All the women I meet, I encourage them by saying, 'Go! Go! This class is very interesting, very important," she says. "Besides, they teach us with lots of love.'"

And second, Olga almost didn't get her job because she didn't speak much English. Now, she's excelling: She says she can better understand the people around her, and she can also contribute to the conversations at work too.

Now, when she attends class at Rosie's Place and one of her teachers greets her with "Good morning, Olga," she feels extremely proud that she's able to reply with "How are you?"

"You know when you’re older, sometimes it’s more difficult to comprehend new things, but here, I’ve learned a lot," Olga says. "I can understand some English now — not a lot — but I’ve accomplished a whole lot.”

The semester will be over soon, but Olga has plans to tackle a writing class in the fall.

Image by Rosie's Place, used with permission.

At a time when a lot of people are questioning whether the all-mighty "American dream" is alive and well, Olga is proof that it is.

The American dream is all about being given the opportunity to reach for your goals. And while Olga came to America with little, she has slowly but surely found a way to carve out a positive path for herself.

In a time when it feels as though things may be moving backward in America, especially for immigrants, this program should give us hope.

Olga and Kevin are a beautiful testament to the fact that these dreams still exist, and that good people are working to make America a welcoming, successful place for immigrants.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

JediMentat 44 / Flickr

Starbucks is the most popular coffee chain in the world and it's also one of the greatest producers of waste. The company uses more than 8,000 coffee cups per minute, which adds up to four billion a year. Over 1.6 million trees are harvested every year to make its disposable cups.

Since the cups are lined with plastic only four cities in the U.S. will accept them for recycling.

Starbucks has attempted to address this issue in the past by making bold proclamations that it will reduce its waste production, but unfortunately, they have yet to yield substantial results.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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