Connecting communities to resources

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Erme Maula takes on her newest task — making sure children can read on grade level by 4th grade.

From healthcare to storybooks, Whitman resident Erme Maula has dedicated her career to connecting underserved communities with resources. In her latest task, the former nurse and mental health researcher is working with the citywide campaign Read by 4th. Here, she stacks books at a Bella Vista Coffee shop — the site of one of several Read by 4th Book Nooks throughout the city. (GRACE MAIORANO/ South Philly Review)

Walking down South 4th Street, Whitman dwellers may notice a homemade community bulletin in the window of a modest rowhome.

The display of fliers, including announcements such as pre-k registrations presented in both English and Spanish versions, is stitched together by the home’s occupant — Erme Maula.

Maula, a reading captain for the city’s Read by 4th program and also former advanced practice nurse and mental health program manager, has dedicated her life to linking communities with resources.

“In the city, there are resources and then there are communities who may or may not know about those resources,” she said. “So, how do we become bridges and conduits between that information to people that have and then to people who may not have access?”

From health care to storybooks, seeking accessibility for underserved populations continues to surface in Maula’s spectrum of work.

Maula, who was born to Philippine immigrants in Charleston, South Carolina, ventured to Philly 26 years ago to study at the University of Pennsylvania. After also receiving a master’s degree in nursing, specifically concentrating on community administration, from Thomas Jefferson University, Maula began her service with various medical and clinical programs, specifically taking the education she acquired at the collegiate level and converting it into resources for patients.

Aside from working at a number of hospitals, including the Hospital of the University of Penn, Pennsylvania Hospital, Magee Rehabilitation Hospital and Good Shepherd Rehab, she dedicated efforts toward HIV/AIDS initiatives for the city, advocated for health care with language access and taught in nursing schools.

“My patient is the community,” she said.

After feeling fatigued by the career’s demands, she shifted her focus toward a less-taxing course, starting work with the former Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania — now named Mental Health Partnerships in Center City. Eventually climbing to the position of program manager, Maula led innovative approaches to mental health treatment, such as training and hiring people with severe mental illness for full-time jobs and introducing them to ordinary hobbies such as music and art classes.

At the top of her game, Maula says the holistic lifestyle for patients led to immense research, including the organization’s earning of thousands of dollars of funding, as she delivered keynotes at international conferences and started similar programs across the state.

However, in late 2015, her monumentum came to a halt when when Maula was diagnosed with metastatic cancer.

“That stopped everything,” she said. “And at that point, it was spread throughout my body … I said ‘I believe in living your life how you tell other people to live their lives,’ so I walked away from work, because I needed to focus on my wellness and getting treatment.”

Mifflin Square’s sidewalk library (Photo courtesy of Erme Maula)

But, beneath layers of medication and other remedies, her helping hand was unhindered, as although she couldn’t work 9 to 5, she eventually connected with Read by 4th — the city’s multiagent and multimillion-dollar campaign that strives to have every child in the city reading on grade level by the time they enter fourth grade.

With almost two-thirds of children in Philadelphia entering the fourth grade unable to read at grade level by the start of the 2016–2017 school year, according to the program, Read by 4th encompasses a network of resources, including text-message tips for parents, pop-up literacy nooks throughout the city and neighborhood Reading Captains — Maula’s new role.

“I have no literature background — kids and books — I deal with adults, but I believe in connecting communities to resources,” she said.

As captain, she helps local children and their families find educational opportunities at nearby schools and libraries. She also partners with neighborhood organizations, such as friends of Mifflin Square Park, to distribute books to the community.

In the green space, which is currently the site of a major renovation project, Maula’ has installed a “sidewalk library” where folks of all ages are welcome to give and take books as they please.

When there was not enough official Read by 4th nooks for the Whitman area, she created her own makeshift version using wooden crates, which she has placed in businesses around the neighborhood.

Maula says she sees all ethnicities and ages wandering into Mifflin Square to make the book exchanges.

“It’s a part of the city that — not that it’s forgotten … but there’s a lot of changes happening and a lot of communities all in one place, and we’re kind of right in the middle of it,” she said.

One of Maula’s homemade book crates. (Photo courtesy of Erme Maula)

As an advocate for the rights and welfare of immigrants, people of color and lower-income communities, Maula finds the ability for a child to read on grade level especially crucial to social justice.

Knowing how to read at an elementary age not only statistically guarantees a better chance of graduating high school but also ensures fundamental opportunities like simply registering to vote.

“How can we level that playing field of — even though you may not have $200,000 come in every year — how do you still have the same knowledge of what’s going on and you have access to?” Maula said. “So, that’s what we’re trying to do — bridge that gap by just putting stuff in the window.”

For more information about Read by 4th visit: readby4th.org/.