What makes RAR-MA so special? The people. Read about Francia’s journey to our team.
Summarizing Francia Wisnewski in a brief blog post is a tall order. She greets everyday with a beaming smile, a relentless desire to improve the lives in her surrounding community, and a superhuman level of energy that could rival the total energy level for an entire RAR-MA community partner preschool. (Fun fact: she is an ultra marathoner!) As a five year Senior Program Manager here at Raising A Reader MA, she is the reason for our success in Western Massachusetts.
Joining in October 2012, Francia was asked to build the RAR-MA program in Springfield, Massachusetts. “I was driven by the organization’s mission and its positive influence on families and their children, and to have an opportunity to build a program from the ground up.” And grow from the ground up, she did. She began her role as the Springfield Program Manager and has since become the Senior Program Manager for the Pioneer Valley, serving the communities of Holyoke, Springfield and West Springfield.
Her journey to RAR-MA, and the US for that matter, begins in rural Colombia. She was born in a town called Cali that her parents moved to in search of jobs that rural Colombia could not offer. They worked hard to provide her and her sister with the opportunities they did not have in rural Colombia, including education which only went up to elementary grades.
While public education and early literacy was not an emphasis of the Colombian culture in Francia’s youth, her parents made sure to give them access to whatever they could. They did not have a lot of exposure to children’s books before school started, but Francia can remember the small libraries that she was eager to escape to during her early elementary school years. She also recalls the time she spent running to her neighbor’s to read her subscription magazines and whatever else she could get her hands on.
This was encouraged by her parents. She saw how adamant they were with reading the news or tuning into educational stations on the radio. Francia was influenced by this love of learning and even noted proudly that her mother achieved her high school diploma in early 2000’s.
Due to the dense population and capacity of the public schools in Colombia, education was not mandated for young children. Parents had to pay for their children to attend elementary school. From there, students could enter a lottery system in order to attend a public vocational middle and high school that would prepare them to directly enter the workforce. At her school, textbooks were not provided. Francia’s parents made it a priority to ensure they were able to purchase all materials required.
Francia had educational aspirations past completing vocational school, though. She focused her studies in vocational school on math and science instead of one that trained students directly for job placement. When it came time for her to take the test to apply to one of Colombia’s public universities, she performed exceedingly well and was admitted into one of the top public universities, Universidad Del Valle.
Her desire to better herself and the world drove her to apply to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She made her move to the United States in 2001 to further her education. For her Master’s in Education, she concentrated on Early Childhood Development and focused some of her class load at the at the Center for International Education at UMass. She cites the combination of the knowledge around the importance of learning in early childhood, and the role that policy, grants, and data play in the education systems, as a large reason why she is successful in her role now.
At the university, Francia pursued a teaching degree, concentrating on math and sciences. She was drawn to the profession because she wanted to remain embedded in her community and the system that would help shape the future members of society. Of this notion Francia said “If we work with children, we can change the world.”
Francia got a lot more than an education at UMass Amherst. She fell in love with Franklin County (now her home) and with a man that lived there (now husband Mark). She chose to root her family in this beautiful, rural part of Massachusetts. She was happy with her professional degrees, but continued to seek opportunities to improve herself and to become more accustomed to the western Massachusetts culture. In true Francia fashion, as she was bettering herself, she also sought opportunities to make an impact on her community. She worked for Community Action Pioneer Valley and was an elected board member of Greenfield School Committee. In addition to teaching, she worked to run community and family centers that serviced low-income citizens and working families.
When Francia came across the job opening for the RAR-MA Program Manager position, she was ecstatic. It was the perfect combination of all her experiences and abilities, beginning all the way in Cali, Colombia. Her ability to form meaningful, sustaining relationships with the community partners and funders combined with her deep passion for serving her community make her an invaluable asset to RAR-MA.
In Francia’s words “Be true to yourself, be full of compassion, integrity and respect. The individuals who embody these traits are able to bring people together to accomplish great tasks while creating a deeper connection to each other and our environment.”