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:

Emely Gicela Jenny Yolanda

Emely: “It Starts With You”

“You have to have that love for yourself – the confidence and motivation to do it for you. Your son benefits from it, your daughter benefits from it. But it starts with you.

Wednesday morning, 8:30 am and a group of teenage girls spill into the classroom. It’s just like so many other classrooms across America. Except this one is different. The room is filled with young mothers who are full of potential. They’re ready to broaden their horizons for their children through education. 

Last fall, Literacy Partners launched a new class called Leadership for Education And Parenting (LEAP) on the campus of Bronx Community College. Weekly seminars focus on providing teenage mothers parenting classes around children’s healthy development, problem-solving, and self-reflection, while they work towards earning their high school equivalency degree and transitioning into college. 

In just two semesters, LEAP has created a supportive community of learners who are achieving academic success and gaining confidence in their parenting skills. Over 40% of the students earned a High School Equivalency degree and transitioned into college — about three times the rate of other parents who were not part of the program. 

Instrumental to the process is providing students with a home library of age-appropriate books for their children so that each mom can bond with her children through the daily habit of family reading time. As a result, LEAP has quickly become a “safe haven” for many of our students – students like Emely.

“The dialogue makes me a better parent,” Emely says. She’s learned how to engage her son, Adrian, and together, they reflect on their day, creating a routine that has deepened their connection. She credits LEAP for building her confidence and making her a stronger student and mother.

“Now, I don’t feel so nervous to speak out in front of a classroom. It’s helped me open up and express myself. I’m not as hard on myself as I used to be. It also makes me a better mom.” 

Emely attributes her confidence to the women around her – a community of mothers in the classroom who are going through the same triumphs and obstacles.

“I never knew how much I needed friends who are mothers. It’s really refreshing and such a relief to have people in this group that have children and have been through the same things as you.”

The LEAP program has motivated Emely to view her future differently. She’s working towards a psychology degree so that she can help others. She wants to see Adrian’s reading skills continue to grow and to nurture their strong bond. LEAP has changed the trajectory of both Emely and Adrian’s lives, putting them on a path that will take them to new heights.

Gicela: “I Root For Myself Now”

Education is a right and we need to keep advocating for it.

On a rainy May morning, hundreds of adult ESOL students gathered under umbrellas at Brooklyn Borough Hall to rally for adult literacy funding. They were a mighty force to behold, their signs held high in the air. At the forefront standing proudly was our student, Gicela Jarquin. She spoke confidently and passionately in front of various literacy organizations and elected officials. Education is a right and we need to keep advocating for it,” Gicela proclaimed amid loud applause. 

Gicela’s journey at Literacy Partners started last year when she joined our English For Parents classes in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. As a single mother in Mexico, earning enough to provide basic needs and an education for her children was challenging. She had to work more than 15 hours a day to make ends meet. She decided to immigrate to the United States and focus on ensuring her children Reina, Isabel, Enrique, Jayden, and Emily will have the opportunities she did not. 

Gicela realized that because of her language limitations, she was missing the opportunity of helping her children. “If I want to keep improving, I need to practice and keep learning,” she told us. Gicela’s improvements don’t go unnoticed. At her children’s school, teachers compliment her improved language skills and how she’s better able to advocate for her children as a result. “It made me feel really happy to hear that. Those moments motivate me – I root for myself now,” she said. 

Gicela understands how far she’s come and it has motivated her to go even further. She is an active community member of a Parent Teacher Association and the Diversity Committee at PS1. When interviewed by NY1 Noticias, she told them that “the opportunity to be the voice of all immigrants, not only Latinos, but the entire immigrant community [is exciting].”

Gicela cites her experience as our 2019 Gala speaker as her highlight of the year. She shared her story on stage in front of more than 400 guests. “It was an unforgettable experience, I felt like a whole different person,” she said with tearful eyes. The evening proved to Gicela that she can achieve anything in life. Seeing her children beaming with pride as guests congratulated her was priceless, especially because of the example it set for them: “Once you set a goal for yourself and work towards it, nothing can stop you.” Literacy Partners is proud of Gicela’s achievements and the role model she’s become as she advocates for other immigrant families like her own.

Jenny: “Reading Is the Key to Success”

It feels so good to know more English. I can handle it now.”

Originally from Fujian, China, Jenny came to the United States as a teenager with her family. She had a family of her own – Jackson, 8, and Emily, 5, – and her dream is to buy a house with her husband. Although Jenny loves living in New York – she loves taking her children to the Museum of Natural History and city parks – the language barrier makes it difficult to navigate. She joined a Literacy Partners class in Sunset Park to improve her English and be able to help her children with their homework.

“It’s easy to make friends in the class. We have a lot in common, so we are like a family and a big community. We talk like old friends,” Jenny says happily. Together, Jenny and her classmates work to improve their English proficiency and build their skills. She praises her teacher, Sari, for her kindness and patience as she helps them.

“It feels so good to know more English,” Jenny says. “I can handle it now.”

With her improved English, Jenny is able to be a more active participant in her children’s education.

“Now I help my kids with their homework. I coach them to read a book every night for at least 30 minutes. We go to the library, and bring home books we can read together. I feel good when I read with my kids.”  

Jenny tells her children to focus on doing their homework and reading. She believes reading is the key to success – “that’s what’s important,” she says. When her children need help with pronunciation or understanding certain words, Jenny can help. They make it a mutual learning experience. As a result of Jenny’s involvement, Jackson’s grades has improved – initially a 1 or a 2, his grades have risen to 3’s and 4’s!

As Jenny builds her English skills, she has set goals for herself to push her forward. “I want to be able to read books on my own, not just in a group. When I first came here, I went to high school for two years and I dropped out. With English, maybe I can now take GED classes. I want to take the GED, finish school, and get my diploma.”

Yolanda: Reading Pays Off

“The classes improve my parenting skills, and give me a way to help my children.”

Originally from Machala, Ecuador, Yolanda came to the United States in 2002 to find a better job. She enjoyed being surrounded by the diversity of people and cultures in New York City, but found it difficult to be so far away from family.

Yolanda joined Literacy Partners to build her English skills and help her connect with her family and her community. Yolanda has two children – Camila, 7, and Roger, 4, – and has seen a huge improvement in how she communicates with them. She says, “the class has helped me a lot with communicating with Camila and helping her with her homework. Camila feels happy that we can do homework together every day and speak together in English.” Before, her lack of English proficiency barred her from engaging with Camila and helping her with her homework. “Now, I understand more. I can tell her if she’s writing better or worse,” Yolanda says. Camila has noticed her mother’s improvement and encourages her regularly.

Yolanda is not the only one to experience the improvement – Camila, who is in first grade, has seen her grades increase between last year and this year, particularly for English and reading. Last year, Camila’s reading was at level 3 – with Yolanda’s coaching and regularly reading together, her reading is now at level 4, the highest level! Yolanda reads to Camila and Roger three or four times each week  – Dr. Seuss books are a frequent choice – and Camila reads on her own every day. Roger is an emerging reader, and reads with Yolanda or Camila. At our recent Books of Their Own distribution, he picked out The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, and is excited to read the book together.

English has built bridges within her family and with the outside community. “It’s easy to find friends here,” Yolanda says. Before, she was unable to respond to phone calls and comprehend what others were saying. “Before, I had to ask other people to make phone calls for me. Now I can do it myself. This class has helped me a lot,” she says. “The classes are really good for me. It’s a way to improve my parenting skills, and give me a way to help them.”

Her dream is for her children to study hard, have a good education and profession, and have a life that is successful and easier than hers.