Literacy Partners students commit themselves to one of the toughest challenges in the world: learning—as adults—to read, write, and speak in English. We’re constantly inspired by their fierce determination to improve their lives and those of their families. Here are some of their stories:

Carmen Guaman Maria de Jesus Perez Marina Montiel Sofía Fernandez

Carmen Guaman: Reading Opens New Doors

Reading has become a huge part of Carmen’s life, as she shares her improved English with Nuriel and Jacquelyn. Every night before bed, Nuriel and Jacquelyn eagerly say, “Mommy, you have to read with us!”

Thirteen years ago, Carmen left Cañar, Ecuador to support her family. She arrived in the United States with the dream of helping her family back home, but quickly discovered the difficulties of not knowing English. Without knowledge of the language, Carmen faced hiring discrimination, low salaries, and was barred from job opportunities available to English speakers.

After friends told her about Literacy Partners, Carmen joined with the hopes of gaining access to the many opportunities New York provided – for insurance and health care, jobs and education, but most important, for her children. She believed she would be able to seize those opportunities – to climb the ladder and better provide for herself and her family, once she learned English. Carmen was struck by the support system provided by the students in the class, and her teacher, Sandra Cespedes.

Prior to joining her class in Corona, Queens, Carmen was frustrated by her lack of English,  especially in her inability to help her eight-year-old son, Nuriel, with his homework, often seeking help for him at the library. She was nervous to ask questions to MTA workers and others – scared of speaking incorrectly.

One of Carmen’s favorite things about New York is the freedom – and through Literacy Partners, she now feels she has the opportunity to express herself. Now, Carmen is confident in her day to day life. She is excited by the thought of talking to Nuriel and her daughter, five-year-old Jacquelyn, in English. Her son helps her with her English – Carmen uses her knowledge of ‘why’ and ‘where’ to continuously question her children in an effort to understand them better. This has made Carmen’s relationship with her children stronger. “We help each other,” she says. “We don’t seek outside help – we work together to understand.” Together, they work together – and learn together – as they look for English translations.

Reading has become a huge part of Carmen’s life, as she shares her improved English with Nuriel and Jacquelyn. Every night before bed, Nuriel and Jacquelyn eagerly say, “Mommy, you have to read with us!” Carmen happily obliges, allowing her children to pick the books. Reading with them has also prompted independent reading. Although Jacquelyn doesn’t know how to read yet – she’s just starting her journey! – she makes up stories according to the pictures, as she begins to recognize words. With Carmen’s help, she is teaching herself how to read – on one occasion, Jacquelyn happily said, “I am little.”

By reading with Nuriel and actively helping with his homework, Carmen has seen a positive change in his grades. “Before, he never showed me his grades,” Carmen says. “Now, he comes to me and is excited to share his grades with me – Mommy, I got a 100! I got an 85!” This motivates both of them to work together on Nuriel’s homework and make corrections. Nuriel’s teacher has told Carmen that Nuriel is improving in his grades and is seeing positive changes, as his writing and reading grades have improved.

The improvements in her children’s learning have inspired Carmen, who says, “I want to learn English really well. My children encourage me to use my English and grow more confident. I want to continue teaching my children because they are my life.”

Maria de Jesus Perez: President of the Parents

“We’re learning the same words,” Maria says. “I like that because we understand and learn together. We say, ‘You try. I try. ’”

Maria came to the United States from Veracruz, Mexico in 2004. When her sons (nine and six) started school, Maria realized she needed to learn English. She had already had difficulty communicating at the hospital, around the neighborhood, with her landlord, and at her son’s school. She would need translation services to communicate her needs to others. But it was when she truly struggled to help her children with their homework, that she knew she needed to learn English.

Maria called joining her Literacy Partners class “perfect,” because it fit with her schedule and allowed her to feel safe knowing that she could learn English after her son had been dropped off at school. She’s also excited by the opportunities the class has given her. Now, Maria is happy that she can help her two sons, nine-year-old Mauricio and six-year-old Ronaldo, with their homework, in addition to reading to them in English and Spanish. As Ronaldo started first grade, Maria realized the similarities in their education. “We’re learning the same words,” Maria says. “I like that because we understand and learn together. We say, ‘You try. I try. ’”

Every night, Maria, Mauricio, and Ronald sit down for two hours to work on their homework together, building a connection as they work on their assignments for their respective classes. Two years ago, Maria would have called the school hotline to get homework help for her son – now, they check the homework together. “When we practice everyday language and vocabulary, we say ‘I got it.’ and ‘Yes, you can.’

Maria’s participation in education doesn’t stop there – she’s now an active parent at her son’s school. Last year, when she would call her son’s school, she would have to wait on the phone for half an hour to get a Spanish translator. Now, she speaks with school officials directly. Not only is Maria able to engage with the school in English, but she has become an active member of the school community. Maria joined the PTA, inspired to help others in her community by applying her English skills. Recently, the principal called her “the president of the parents.”

Since enrolling in her Literacy Partners class in Corona, Queens, Maria has worked hard and has achieved extraordinary results. In one academic year, she’s gained two educational levels! She also reports a reduction of stress. As she builds bonds with her sons by learning English, her educational involvement has spiked; she’s gone from never helping her sons with homework to helping 5-6 times per week. Further, she has increased time spent reading with them (the greatest single thing parents can do with their children to improve academic performance and school readiness) from 1-2 times to 3-4 times per week.

Both her sons are doing well in school as a result. In our conversation, Maria emphasized the importance of learning English as a mother – it allows her to maintain her children’s well-being by communicating with the school, doctors, and other parents. Her goals now are to seek work opportunities as her English continues to improve, and to help her children. She’s confident and secure, no longer nervous to reach out to others, instead, stepping into a role as a leader and translator for those who need assistance.

When asked what she enjoys most about living in New York, Maria said, “everyone has the freedom to express themselves how they want.” And now Maria can have a taste of that freedom – in English.

Marina Montiel: Finding Strength in Family

“I am inspired by my daughter because she says she is proud of me.”

Marina left much behind in her home of Puebla, Mexico, including her seven-year-old son, Edgar. She came to the United States, hoping to find opportunities and to help her son financially. However, she was soon struck by how difficult it was to make a home in the United States, homesick for her family and isolated by the language barrier.

As a single mom, Marina faced many challenges – she lacked the support system of her family, knowledge of the English language, and sufficient job opportunities to support herself.

Marina found solace in the English for Parents class at Literacy Partners, discovering a community of parents facing similar challenges. Marina calls joining the class “gratifying,” as she made friends in her class and in the neighborhood, and improved her English. Marina is raising her four-year-old daughter, Jatziri, with the knowledge that she can understand English, and make life a little bit easier for both of them.

In spite of the many obstacles Marina has faced, she says, “I am inspired by my daughter because she says she is proud of me.” Four days a week, Marina reads to Jatziri – her favorite books are from the Disney franchise, Frozen – and she says, “I feel great when I read with her because she understands me.” Although her daughter is young, Marina is excited to speak with her in English and help her follow her dreams. “Jatziri wants to be a doctor,” Marina says proudly. She is looking forward to the future as her English improves, and, now that people can understand her, she feels safe and secure in expressing herself. She wants to help others feel the same way.

“Now, I don’t get stuck in one place. I can speak in English and understand others.”

Marina has thrived in her class – gaining four educational levels in one academic year – and now feels the courage to move forward with her English skills at hand. “I have to be strong because I have to think of my children and the opportunities I have. I can help with their education. Thinking of them gives me strength to keep going.”  

Marina credits Literacy Partners with the confidence and courage she now feels as she navigates the ins and outs of New York City, using her improved English to support her family here in NYC and in Mexico.

Sofía Fernandez: Striving for the Next Generation

“Now when people talk to me in English, I feel so proud and happy when I can answer.”

Some Literacy Partners students have come to the United States in search of an education. But Sofía Fernandez left her education behind, on the outskirts of Lima, in her native Peru. A relative had convinced Sofía’s factory-worker mother to stop “wasting” her hard-earned money sending Sofía to college in Peru. The relative said that Sofía would never earn enough money in South America, but that in the United States, high-paying work would be plentiful.

After arriving in New York, Sofía quickly discovered the truth: without speaking English, finding employment would be very difficult. In her first job, at McDonald’s, the words “hi,” “bye,” and the checkout total were her sole means of communicating with patrons—–who, she says, yelled at her if they had a problem with the food. She spent the next nine years working 12-hour days, six days a week, as a cashier earning less than $7 per hour.

Her punishing schedule left Sofía little time to learn English. When she interviewed to work at a deli, in 2011, she simply said “yes” to every question. “I just needed a job and figured I would learn everything there,” she says. “I didn’t know that I was telling him I could make a cappuccino!”

Although the hours at the deli were long and hard, Sofía’s luck quickly improved. On her first day, Emilio, a coworker, called her “señora”—–the Spanish term of respect for an older or married woman. “I’m not married!” was her retort. One thing led to another and they married three years later. “We don’t have a lot of money, but we have a lot of love, me and my husband,” she says.

In September 2016, pregnant with her daughter, now three months old, Sofía anxiously signed up for a Literacy Partners English for Parents class in the Bronx. “I was thinking of my baby. I wasn’t thinking about me,” she says. “I was thinking about her future.”

The class was immediately helpful. Far from scary, “my teacher, Sari, was lovely,” Sofía says. “By the second class, I already knew a bit.”

Right away, she learned how to introduce herself, say where she’s from, and make her way more easily around New York. “Now when people talk to me in English, I feel so proud and happy when I can answer,” Sofía says, adding that she wishes she could attend class every day.

When Sofía was nervous about her pregnancy, Sari encouraged her to sing to her baby in Spanish and gave Sofía a book, Olivia, to read out loud to her. “She hears you,” Sari told Sofía.

Sofía was not read to as a child, because her mother had little time, she says, and she owned few books. So, she was thrilled to receive a free set of books from Literacy Partners for her newborn baby.

Since her daughter, Isabella, was born, Sofía has continued to read to her every day and is delighted to see Isabella’s energetic response. In her class, Sofía learned the simple truth that talking, singing, and reading to her baby will build her brain and give her the strongest possible start in life.

“I dream of a better life for her. I hope she’s going to be a good person, and not have to work as hard as me,” Sophia says. “But here, the most important thing is the language.”