Julie Miller Shaping the Lives of PASD Students

Julie Miller Shaping the Lives of PASD Students
Posted on 12/19/2019
Julie Miller

Julie Miller
DAY 8 of #12DaysofWeavers, a holiday series celebrating the social fabric weavers of Phoenixville, PA. For 12 days, we’ll meet a vibrant array of people who’ve discovered where their gifts meet the world’s needs. Follow along at @3minutestoryteller 

A book can open us up to so much more than the story inside. 

“A mom of one my students who had recently arrived here from Guatemala came in to be a guest reader,” Julie Miller, English as a Second Language Teacher at Phoenixville Area Early Learning Center [PAELC] recalls. “After she read the book in Spanish, we asked her what her favorite books growing up were. She said that in Guatemala as a little girl, she didn’t own any books. She relied on her mother telling her stories, but they had no books at all. It really put things into perspective for me about how lucky we are here to have shelves full of books to read to our students every day. “ 

Schools are a microcosm of society and our teachers are on the front lines to the myriad of hopes, challenges, and experiences facing American families. Ms. Miller noticed her Spanish-speaking students were checking out books at the school library and were bringing them back unread. No one at home could read to them because they didn’t read in English. She wrote a grant to the Phoenixville Community Education Foundation to purchase new books, “and the Spanish library was born!” 

Downplaying the extraordinary lengths she goes to for her students, Ms. Miller simply says it’s a matter of “staying in tune with what your students need. As you go through the day to day of your life as a teacher, you see needs arise.” 

Seeing a need is one thing. Having the gumption to address it is quite another. But for Julie, that’s just what you do. “My colleague Kate Vondercrone Camarda and I noticed many of our immigrant families were asking for a crib here, or a stroller there. We thought, what if we just brought together all of our gently used items and allowed families to take what they needed for free? Our first Freecycle was literally items that Kate and I stored in our basement and brought out for the event,” Ms. Miller explains. 

Now in its third year, Freecycle, is a cherished community event. Families with goods to spare appreciate that their gently used items are staying out of a landfill and going directly to neighbors. Others love being able to shop for what they want among the beautiful displays set up by Julie and her team of volunteers. 

Working so closely with the immigrant community, Ms. Miller finds herself acting as a bridge between different worlds. “I really want folks to know that the immigrant experience can be painful and traumatic, but families are willing to take these risks and make these sacrifices because there is no future in their home countries. No prospect of a solid education, a job, or the ability to prosper,” Ms. Miller says. “Here, there is hope. There is education. There are jobs.” 

If you create opportunities for neighbors to get to know each other, they begin to care for each other. Ms. Miller has learned that intentional proximity is the first step towards social healing. And nothing shrinks the distance between us like books. 

Last year, Julie’s class collaborated with Natalie Hyrnko’s middle school class. The classes enjoyed reading and learning together. Soon the middle schoolers realized that Ms. Miller’s students didn’t have books at home. During their last visit, the older students announced that all of the books they just read were actually gifts for Ms. Miller’s students to bring home and keep. Ms. Hyrnko had written a grant for books donations as a surprise for Julie and her class. “It was beyond heartwarming,” remembers Ms. Miller.

That she can play a small part in shaping her community to match her values, to become a kinder, more inclusive place, infuses Ms. Miller’s life with a deep sense of purpose. “Overwhelmingly,” shares Julie, “our families are kind, hardworking, grateful, and wonderful thriving members of our community, who are simply here for the hope of a better future for their children. I love that our school district is embracing our [English Language] students and is becoming more and more inclusive every year. This is the shape of the world we live in, and I’m thrilled that it’s a part of our community here in Phoenixville.”

Photo: Julie Miller, left, with Genny Amores and Kate Camarda, after their presentation at the Latino Communities Conference in West Chester, PA.

julie miller

*** Photo PAMS students reading to Julie Millers class

*** Julie Miller and volunteers at last year's Freecycle event
free cycle

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