Literacy Green Bay helps Wakker, others realize citizenship dreams
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – In Ukrainian, “povynno buty” means meant to be.
Regardless of the language, 57-year-old Ukrainian immigrant Olga Wakker said it’s a phrase she uses often to describe her path to the United States.
Born and raised in Odessa, Ukraine, a port city on the Black Sea, Wakker said she never imagined moving to America, let alone becoming a citizen and making a life on a dairy farm in Northeast Wisconsin.
It started with a chance meeting with a man from Holland at a folk dance ensemble concert in 2010 in Odessa.
Two years later, the pair married and embarked on a new adventure in the U.S.
Her husband, Johannes, was familiar with life in the states, having worked as a plant engineer in Wisconsin for many years.
However, when the couple made the move, they bought a dairy farm in Kewaunee and began making traditional Dutch cheese, which they sell throughout the country, including at many stores in Greater Green Bay.
“I didn’t choose Kewaunee, Kewaunee chose me,” she said. “Kewaunee was predisposed by fate for me, because my husband, Johannes, lived and worked here for more than 30 years.”
When she got to the U.S., she said she found several Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking friends in the area, which helped make Wisconsin feel like home.
“They helped me to find a school where I could study English,” she said.
Wakker took a test at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to gauge her level of English comprehension.
“From there, I was sent to Literacy Green Bay, where I took English classes,” she said.
When she received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regarding her citizenship interview, she said the staff and volunteers at Literacy Green Bay were a major help.
Wakker said during the citizenship interview, applicants need to be able to understand questions the interviewing officer asks and respond correctly in English, without making any mistakes.
“When I was preparing for the citizenship exam, I had difficulties because I am not fluent in English,” she said. “Also, there were many new words that I had to learn during the process of preparation. However, I overcame these difficulties with my diligence to study and the help of my Literacy Green Bay tutors. It’s so worth it. I am glad that I did it. It provided me with the feeling of accomplishment.”
Wakker obtained citizenship in March 2021.
She said many factors fueled her desire to become a citizen.
Wakker said living in the U.S. for nearly eight years before applying for citizenship afforded her the opportunity to learn.
“I had time to get to know this country, so I definitely knew why I wanted to become a citizen,” she said. “The main reason was that America provides freedom in many aspects of human life. It is very important to me. Also, I wanted to be able to vote, because I wanted to be a part of American society and be able to make a difference for the country as a politically active and responsible citizen.”
Wakker said the small-town lifestyle is an adjustment.
“I am from a big city, so I am missing big city life,” she said. “The first thing that was hard to adjust to was the weather. In Odessa, Ukraine, we have four seasons with mild and short winters. So, it was hard to get used to the harsh Wisconsin winters.”
She said driving, in the beginning, was also a challenge.
“It was hard for me, in the beginning, to get used to the interstates with the intense driving on the roads,” Wakker said.
Access to Ukrainian food is also sometimes hard to come by.
“I am missing Ukrainian food such as hard rye bread, salted herring, smoked mackerel, dry and salted fish, black sunflower seeds for a snack and many others,” she said.
Luckily, Wakker said, a trip to Milwaukee or Chicago can help with most of these cravings.
Driven by four pillars – empower, inclusive, accountable and collaborative – Literacy Green Bay has been an advocate for adult literacy for the past 40 years.
Executive Director Robyn Hallet said the nonprofit’s mission is to help adults and families acquire the reading, writing, math, English language, computer and workforce skills needed to effectively function as workers and community members.
The organization’s outreach also includes helping immigrants in the process of becoming American citizens with classes, tutoring and mock interviews.
“We kind of prioritize (citizenship) within our tutoring program, because it is a finite deadline that somebody has for when their citizenship test is,” Hallet said.
She said learners are assessed on their current English language comprehension and then matched with a tutor who helps them prepare for the citizenship test.
Hallet said in the last three years, Literacy Green Bay helped more than 30 immigrants in Greater Green Bay become U.S. citizens.
Like many nonprofits, Hallet said Literacy Green Bay relies on community members – both for financial donations and volunteer hours.
“In a typical year, we have about 200 volunteers,” she said. “We have a variety of funding sources. We are of course very grateful for all the community support, which includes local corporations and foundations that support us.”
She said the organization can always use more support, especially with needs for adult literacy increasing following the pandemic.
“We are always looking for other individuals and corporations who want to support the mission of adult literacy,” Hallet said.