At Literacy Network, our learners make us who we are. Each day, we're energized by their dedication, perseverance and courage in the face of hardship.
For them, our mission is simple: To give hope through literacy. To offer a new start. To support those dreaming of a better life. Here are some of their stories.
A Reflection from Ruth Robarts, a Literacy Network intern In 2010, many Nepali families arrived in Madison as refugees. Years before, the government of Bhutan had stripped them of their rights and assets in Bhutan. Many had lived most of their lives in United Nations refugee camps in Nepal. At the time I knew nothing about these events. I certainly did not expect that the coming of these refugees might change my life, but it did.
Why? Because Literacy Network was here. It was here in a tiny, overcrowded building on South Park Street. It was here with a trained and energetic staff. It was here for refugees who needed to learn English, just as it was here for American-born adults who lack literacy and therefore lack many opportunities in life. It was here to help volunteers like me learn to do what needed ---and needs---to be done.
My first student was a Nepali refugee. When we met, Phul Maya could answer a few questions about her family and spell their names. She wanted to learn English as soon as possible. She understood very well that the prospects for her family in their new country depended on learning English. When she quit the Community Literacy program to care for her children while her husband worked, I visited her. I volunteered to tutor her at her apartment. Although I had experience as a teacher, I had never taught English as a Second Language. I counted on the staff to support my efforts. They did, as they always do.
Much has changed in seven years. Literacy Network has moved into a large building renovated for teaching. Phul Maya and her husband have good jobs and own a house. We are friends, and I am their teacher in the evening citizenship class. I expect that they will pass the U.S. citizenship test soon.
Thank you, Literacy Network, for being here in 2010 and now. Thanks for training and supporting many, many volunteers. The adults who come to Literacy Network deserve this welcoming, resourceful program and they make great use of its programs. They will be good citizens, just as they have been good students---hardworking, creative, full of hope, with new ideas to share.
A Reflection from Morgan Armbruster, a Literacy Network tutor
I'm not a tutor. And I'm not just saying that in a humble way. It just doesn't feel like the right word to describe me. I guess I'm not a tutor because volunteering through the Literary Network has shown me that I don't just teach my peers, I learn from them. The word tutor conveys some sort of superiority or dominance over a person... and that's not my style. So, I guess I'd rather call myself a study buddy. Or maybe a peer mentor if you want to get really technical about it.
Before I met Phillip, I was nervous. Okay, nervous isn't a strong enough word. I was terrified. Thoughts swirled through my head: what if I can't help my student? What if I look like a fool? What if I learn in the span of five seconds that the profession I've always dreamed for myself is not meant to be?
These concerns sat in my stomach like a rock, constantly on my mind as students filed in and sat with their tutors. I tensed up when I saw each new face, wondering if this student would be the one. Then Phillip walked in.
I swear, I'd met my long-lost grandpa.
He is one of the jolliest, sweetest men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. His smile instantly melted my fears away and I knew from the start that we were going to get along just fine. I shook his hand, he got his papers out, and we got to work.
Within the span of five minutes, I knew this guy was intelligent. You think when someone asks for a tutor they're struggling with their work... but Phillip would do his problem, ask me if it was right (and 99% of the time it was) and then he'd smile a proud smile. I always love seeing that smile, because it's a smile of confidence. And he deserves to know how smart he is.
Within two sessions, I knew that Phillip was going to be much more than just "my student." He changed my whole outlook on teaching in 4 hours, and I cannot thank him enough for that. I learned that I don't need to know all the answers, because Phillip and I? we were a team. If he didn't know something about the order of operations, I would gently nudge him in the right direction. And if I didn't know how to subtract fractions (and I absolutely did not) Phillip would work out for me what his teacher told him to do. He taught me that teamwork makes the dream work. Seriously. By openly communicating and working together, he helped me craft a teaching method that works the best for him.
So I'm not a tutor. I'm a friend. A study buddy, if you will. Phillip has taught me as much as I've taught him, if not more. He's taught me lessons that you can't find on a whiteboard: like what true generosity, kindness, and selflessness is. He's shown me photos of his wonderful grandkids, daughter, and shares a mutual love of the Green Bay Packers with me. His Disney keychain reflects a joking, childish nature that I admire so much for a guy who works so hard. So, I may help him with his studies, and encourage him to reach for the stars, but I consider Phillip as more than "my student," he's a friend. And I'm his too.
Meet Maria This semester, Spring of 2017, hear the story of Maria, a Literacy Network student in our Community Literacy tutoring program. In multiple installments we will be exploring Maria's journey as an English language learner and getting to know who she is a person as well as a student. Watch for stories monthly for new additions to her inspiring story. Follow the link above to read the first two installments.
Thank you for Supporting Parents
Raana takes English for Parents class to better assist her children in school.
"I have some problem for speaking and conversation problem. I love to learning and getting the knowledge, so that's why I'm here!" Raana says.
She learned about the English for Parents class from a friend. This is the first class she has taken with Literacy Network, and she's been impressed with the teaching method. She's also happy that she and her classmates can now talk with each other in English. Additional classes are in her future, Raana says.
"I like to do parent-teacher conference. That is very helpful because that make me able to ask question to teacher about my daughter. In this section there is a lot of conversation it improve my speaking ability. That is why I love this."
"Raana is a very enthusiastic, outgoing student who always wanted more homework!" says her teacher, Michelle. "In this class, she completed a Home Reading Plan, participated in mock Parent-Teacher conferences, and practiced calling her child in sick to school."
Because of supporters like you, Raana has many opportunities to practice speaking and listening, so she can better assist her children in school."
"I Need to Practice"
"I try to speak in more English because I think the English is important in this country and I need it to know when people talking around me," Pedro explains. "All people in my job speak in English."
The level 2 ESL class gives Pedro an opportunity to practice and plan for his future. When we talked he was working especially hard to understand verb tenses. In one activity, students shared their hopes and plans.
"I hope I continue to take the English class. I hope in couple years I will speak in English more well. Before I think English is hard-but if you study, it is not hard... I need to practice, practice every day! I hope this Literacy Network never disappear because they have a lot people don't speak English... Literacy Network make a big impact in my life."
Lilia has gained confidence
Lilia hopes to learn how to speak, read, and write in English so she can better help her three children with their homework.
"In housekeeping is everybody speak Spanish, Spanish, Spanish and no practice English," Lilia says. One day, her son brought home a flyer for a 12-week English for Parents class and Lilia enrolled. She is learning about the school system, how to talk with teachers, and how to help her children with reading.
"Lilia has certainly gained confidence in speaking English in front of her peers," says the class instructor. "She has progressed from shyly declining to participate to reading a children's book aloud to the entire class."
Lilia hopes to take more classes with Literacy Network because the schedule is convenient for her family.
Because supporters like you help to fund her classes, she is not only better positioned to help her children, but create new job opportunities for herself.
"I Would Like to Reach My Goals"
"I would like to be better for my family. I want to speak English. I want to understand their teachers," Alejandra says, referring to her two daughters, ages 13 and 14. She arrived from Puebla, Mexico, six years ago, and has been enthusiastic in building her new language skills. She also knows a good understanding of the health care system is another important skill.
Your support helps fund important programs like the one Alejandra attends, English for Health. In class, she's learning everything from choosing a doctor, to how to read prescriptions.
"I would like to understand what the doctor say. Learn insurance. How to make an appointment," she explains. In addition to the ESL instructor, a volunteer medical student is on hand during classes to help answer questions and explain complex medical terms. But there's no doubt in Alejandra's mind she'll succeed.
"If I have work and opportunities in the United States to study with programs like this, I would like to reach my goals."
Hilda is Learning for Her Children
Your support of Literacy Network helps parents like Hilda improve English so that they can be better advocates for their children's education.
"Every Wednesday I come here because for me is necessary to learn English because I have two children," says Hilda, a student in the English for Parents class at Falk Elementary School. She appreciates the convenience and style of Literacy Network classes.
"In this class I learn many words new for me. This class talk about the system in the school and the appointments in school, the teacher, the children, what the children need. Many words new for me!"
"Hilda has worked hard to improve her understanding of the American school system," says instructor Becky Fabrizio. "Before this class she was unfamiliar with the letter grading system and now she has practiced discussing report cards and the meaning of each letter grade A-F."
Each year, more than 200 parents participate in this engaging and vital program. Your support ensures that parents are better able to communicate with schools and engage in reading with their children. Thank you for your support!
"Its Never Late for You Learn"
"I want to learn so it's better for me and I understand more, so I can have better relationship with my husband because my husband is American. Sometime it's very hard for communication, you know. And I want to help my daughters to do homework, read a book..."
Elizabeth found Literacy Network through a friend who received a flyer from her child's school. She enrolled in the English for Parents class.
"It's good because I am progressing more. I understand the words and I read more books in English. I try not to be afraid...It's good because it help a lot. My experiences help me a lot."
"Elizabeth is a very dedicated student and has attended every class so far this semester, often arriving early for more practice," says instructor Becky Fabrizio. "She is a natural leader for her peers and often helps to answer other students' English questions."
"I want to learn English, go to college, you know, something better for I can be proud myself and show my daughters it never late for you learn!"
"I Want to Learn This"
Your support leads to better employment for many adults in Dane County. For example, when Otis started working in the food service industry, he didn't need to know much about computers. Soon he realized he had to adapt to changes in the industry if he wanted to move up or find a better job.
"I wanted to get familiar with this computer thing," he explains. He signed up for tutoring through our Skills in Computers and Literacy for Employment (SCALE) program. He and his tutor, Linda, meet every week to work on skills like keyboarding and word processing, and he's grateful to have her help.
"If it weren't for her," he says, pointing to the computer and laughing, "I'd just be sitting here staring at this thing!"
"He's great to work with," Linda says, clearly proud of the progress Otis is already making. "He comes to every class."
Otis has created a professional resume and is now learning to search for and apply for jobs online. He hopes all his new computer skills will help him reach his ultimate goal: to become a food service manager. He admits it's hard learning all these new skills, but he's committed.
"I'm giving it 100%," he says. "I want to learn this."
"When You Learn to Speak Another Language, You're Like a Child."
In a recent ESL class exercise, Diana and other students were instructed to "hire" one of two potential English tutors, based on hypothetical resumes. She clearly preferred the tutor with experience teaching children.
"When you learn to speak another language, you're like a child," she explained. "When I move here, I was 21 years old. I'm not a child, but it was difficult… I feel like a little girl. Learning, asking questions, making dumb questions, but for me it's important."
Diana came to the US from Columbia, and settled in Madison almost two years ago in order for her husband to attend dentistry school. She was immediately excited to expand her English skills.
"I want to speak English since I was 11 years old," she smiled. Diana currently works in a Mexican restaurant in Madison, but she's looking for another job. Thanks to supporters like you, she's on her path to success.
"Today, I have an interview," she said. When asked whether her ESL classes had helped prepare her for that job interview, she nodded. "Yes! I think I'm better than I used to be."
"I Need Good Communication"
One of the first things you will notice about Alejandro is his motivation and drive.
"In my company, the development is very professional. I need a license," he explains. Currently a vet tech in the livestock industry, he gained his professional education in Mexico but getting licensed in the US is more a matter of his English skills than his knowledge of animals.
"I need to pass the test and the veterinarians in the University have another test. It's very difficult and I need perfect English".
Alejandro began to learn English at Literacy Network last November, after living in Madison three years. Until recently, he was able to get by in his day-to-day life because he could always find people at work, the bank, and the store who spoke Spanish, his native language. But now Alejandro has a new position at work which requires greater English usage. Because of your support he finds the help he needs in ESL classes. He knows continuing to improve means even better jobs in the future.
"I need really good English for communicate with my boss or other persons. If I get a better job I have more money, I can buy a good house, I can pay for children's school in the future. The life is more easy, more quality, a better life," he says, clearly visualizing his success. Alejandro also has other goals besides career advancement.
"The other big goal in the next five years is childrens with my wife. That's the big goal!"
"I Enjoy Learning"
"First, I want to speak and write English," Sergette says as she outlines her goals to you. "Second, study nursing. After that, I continue with medical law."
She arrived from Cameroon, a central African republic, two years ago. If learning English in her new community wasn't enough, she has two young children at home. Her 15yo daughter attends a French school in Cameroon.
"This year, I want her to come here," she says of her eldest. To help pave the way, Sergette is taking two ESL classes a week and insists her older daughter speak to her in English. She's a strong believer in showing her children the importance of learning and education. Your support helps to expand literacy programs for parents -and spell success for their children.
"School is very important," she asserts enthusiastically. "Is my vision. I enjoy learning."
"I like to help other people"
"My goal is to get a GED," Maria tells us. "Study to be a kindergarten teacher."
Even during her first few English classes, Maria showed a passion for teaching by helping her fellow students, despite her own limited vocabulary. There's that day in our lives when a sign points us in a direction we were meant to follow. For Maria, that day came after 10 years in Madison when she drove by the Literacy Network and finally decided to learn English. She enrolled in an ESL 1 class and it was then the instructor noticed her willingness to jump in and help without being asked.
Eventually, she proved to be a valuable teacher's assistant, not only in her own class, but in others as well. Along the way she became a tutor and with her quick smile and cheerful attitude, she has the gift of putting a student's mind at ease.
"I like this program," she says. "I like to help other people." If teaching is about giving, Maria is the type of young woman who has much to offer. She has only been on this new path for a year, but early returns indicate a bright future.
Lupé Learns English for Work
Lupé has worked for the Courtyard Hotel in Middleton for almost eight years. She's done well-she's now a housekeeping supervisor. However, her limited English has sometimes made her job hard, especially when she has to speak to hotel guests on the phone.
"I scared when the phone ring," Luna says. "I scared because I think I no understand everything."
Things have gotten easier for Lupé since she started taking Workplace ESL classes last fall. She's now in her second semester of the course, which meets twice weekly and helps local employees of North Central Group (a local hotel management company) learn English skills that are directly relevant to their jobs.
Lupé enjoys the class. Her teachers, Robin and Marie, describe her as an "incredibly driven student" who always works hard during class. "She's very willing to help whenever we ask her," they say. "She likes being able to help her classmates."
Lupé says the classes have helped make communicating with guests and coworkers easier. She's not as afraid to answer the phone, and she finds it much easier to speak with the maintenance crew. Lupé 's new goal is to become a housekeeping manager-and to continue taking classes to improve her English.
"Now I thirsty for more learning and more learning," she smiles.
"I want to buy a house"
When Mamadou talks of his native Guinea in West Africa, he shakes his head. "The economy is no good. Fighting every day. If you do demonstration, they go to your house. It's bad."
Like many immigrants, he made his way to New York City. He describes his experience there as, "busy, busy, busy." It was on these big city streets where he bumped into a fellow countryman, whose car had license plates from a place Mamadou had never heard of: Wisconsin. Talk turned into an invitation and Mamadou soon found himself living in Madison, a place he prefers.
"Quiet. Nice people," he says of his new community. His friend found him a job and now three years later, Mamadou wants to be a citizen and plant his roots here. He came into Literacy Network in January to register for the free Citizenship class to improve his English and US knowledge. He also has dreams beyond buying house and citizenship.
"I want to go to school. I get better job," he says, hopefully. While Mamadou has accomplished much, he admits his next journey has just begun.
"I want to sell more of my fashion"
When Amani, a middle-aged woman from Sudan, flips through images of her creations on her smartphone, it's easy to believe in her dream. They are beautiful and colorful abaya, a traditional garb of richly embroidered material that covers a woman from head to ankle with only her eyes showing. If there's anything standing in her way, it's her English and computer skills.
"Yes," she says, "I need to improve myself." She came to Literacy Network five years ago to learn English so she could feel more comfortable in her new city. Amani comes from a small village and the small town vibe of Madison suits her style. Every day she walks her three school-aged children to the bus stop. She continues to take ESL classes at Literacy Network and now that she's received her driver's license, she brims with a sense of freedom and possibility.
Ultimately, she says, she'd like to open an online shop. As if conjuring her future fashion empire, a smile creeps across her face. "Someday," she says. "Someday."
"Now I Can Feel Free"
When Mario Cantu de Leon, 51, moved to Madison in 2011 he and his wife started a business cleaning houses. They wanted to expand their business to office buildings and commercial clients, but Mario's limited command of English made that difficult.
He came to Literacy Network to take classes and was paired with Ruth, a volunteer tutor. They met every week, working on pronunciation, everyday conversation, even how to draft business contracts. Mario appreciated how Ruth's lessons were tailored to his specific needs, which ranged from pronouncing the "TH" sound to navigating social and professional conversations. As his English improved, so did his business.
"Doing business is a lot better now because I can understand clients better," Mario said. "I can explain more to them over the phone. I can feel more happy because now, my clients, we can talk about each other. Sometimes my clients ask me about my life, my kids, my car. We can talk about more topics."
Ruth, a retired UW-Madison law professor, shared ideas on how to grow his business, helped him draft contracts and suggested books for him to read about commercial cleaning businesses.
"Working with people with literacy issues enriches your life and makes you understand your community in a whole new way," Ruth said. "It's inspiring to watch people meet their goals."
Recently, Mario was thrilled to land his first commercial client, and acknowledged how much his life has changed for the better now that he has a firmer grasp on English.
"When you want to explain something and you don't have a way to explain this to someone, it's a wall," Mario explained. "But, now it's more open. This opened the doors. Now I can feel free."
A New Semester Brings New Faces (Feb 2016)
Kennia's first visit to Literacy Network was 6pm on a Thursday night in January, when the 21 year old registered for her first class and officially started her journey towards improved literacy.
Registering and testing was both "easy and hard," Kennia says with a laugh. She was, "nervous, not scared" to come to Literacy Network, which she had heard about from her family. Kennia's sister-in-law was also registering for a class.
Registering for her first class at the Literacy Network required only a short chat with a staff member to assess Kennia's goals then a short test, which helped staff identify the best class for her, which ended up being Level 3 English class on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester. With her new English skills, Kennia hopes to use her language skills for more education.
"I want to study more and have a better job," she explains, noting that in college she wants to study education, and possibly teaching.
"I love the kids! Little kids, 10 [years-old] and down." She says she may want to teach math, or art. "I love matemáticas; I like The Arts."
"I'm nervous… and excited for the [English] class," she reflects with a smile.
"When I migrated to the United States of North America, I came full of hope of serving the society with my vast knowledge acquired, but I forgot something very important, a KEY, a key that would open the way to the performance of what I wanted to do and THAT KEY… was the English language."
When Corinne Ratsimihah appeared at US Customs with her children a year and a half ago, she had only a very rusty command of English. The customs official asked her the purpose of her visit, and she was stumped.
"I understood, but I couldn't tell him my reason for coming here," she recounts. Corinne's embarrassment over the incident made an impression. "Not being able to converse in English was no good for me or my children. I saw I wouldn't be able to help them." She resolved, that day, that she would find a way to improve her English. Read more...
"Learning English is hard for people. I've had the privilege of learning the language, and I feel a responsibility to use it as a tool to help people in the immigrant community," says Mario Sierra Garcia, program director for the Madison non-profit organization, Centro Hispano.
Mario immigrated from Guatemala in 2003 with a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life. "Education was my first goal when I came to the United States. I wanted to finish my education at the UW-Madison. Then, I hoped to find meaningful work where I could go and feel excited about the work I was doing. English was essential to what I wanted to do."
Back in the 1980s, Rick Kniebuehler's ambition was to become a firefighter, but he faced a seemingly insurmountable hurdle: he could only read at a second-grade level because of a learning disability. He couldn't read or fill out the fire department application, and he had no hope of passing the written tests. Fortunately, a staff member at the fire department referred him to Literacy Network.
It took courage to walk in to Literacy Network, recalls Rick. Adults with reading difficulties often fear being stigmatized. "Many people who can't read are afraid. They don't want others to know," says Rick.
Imagine coming to Madison to fulfill your dream of attending college-but not knowing a word of English. You can't open a bank account or use the library. You can't make friends. And, of course, you can't enroll in classes.
That's the situation Shuzhou Lin found herself in a year and a half ago. She and her mother, brother, and sister emigrated from China to join Lin's father, who had been living here for ten years. Life was frustrating and lonely for Lin. "In this country everybody speaks English," she says. "If you don't speak English you can't communicate with others."
When Fermin Gaytan Flores first came to Madison in 2003, he felt lost. "I didn't speak any English so it was really hard for me to understand everything. I felt like a child, like a baby. I needed help to do everything."
Fermin had a hard time finding work when he first moved to Madison. "It was difficult for me to pass an interview and get a job." Soon, Fermin found work as a laborer for a carpenter. He earned minimum wage.
"The communication was difficult. I had some problems with my boss because I didn't speak English and they tried to take advantage of me with my hours."
"Before I came to Literacy Network, I wasn't able to read books very well at all," said James. "Now I'm able to read a lot better."
James came from Arkansas to Madison in 1973. He had a ninth grade education and had worked as a farm laborer in Arkansas. When he got to Madison, he soon landed a job at Madison Kipp, a foundry on Madison's east side. He worked there for 26 years until he was injured on the job. James started working more than three years ago at Literacy Network on his reading and writing skills with a personal tutor.
"Everyone has a gift to give," says Beatriz Cantelmo, an advocate and advisor for people with disabilities. "If you invest in a human being, and give them the tools and skills to follow their dreams, they will be in a position to give back." She smiles and adds, "It happened to me."
Nineteen years ago, Beatriz arrived in Madison as a young newlywed unable to speak English and with no friends of her own. She had been a medical student in Brazil, fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish, but her university credits would not transfer to a university in the US.
Aletta's little girl is adorable. She's shy and cuddles close to mom. This close pair share the same eyes, but very different childhoods. Aletta's daughter has access to an education her mom never had.
Growing up in Liberia, a small country on the tip of western Africa, Aletta's family struggled with poverty. Because of this, her parents couldn't afford to send her to school.
Ponciano's Story Pots clanging. Orders flying. In the fast-pitched pace of restaurant life, being able to communicate quickly and clearly is a must. For this reason and many others, Ponciano comes back to the Literacy Network each week.
"I use my English in my work and everything," he says, sitting in one of our learning rooms. "I use my English, so I need to work hard. Maybe next year I can talk perfect."
Candy's Story Candy sits in a student learning room at the Literacy Network. Wearing a pageboy hat and a fitted jacket, you can tell she appreciates good fashion. Just a year ago, she didn't speak enough English to interact with salespeople at her favorite stores.
"When I had a problem purchase, I was afraid that I can't talk, how can I return this?" she remembers. "Now, I have no problem with that. They can understand me."