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:Sofía Fernandez Ignacia Gonzalez Rosa Roman Christina Gadsden
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.”
Ignacia Gonzalez: A Mother Helping Her Son At School
“Ignacia has gone from feeling helpless to helping her son every day. They’re in it together.”
When she arrived at the English for Parents class in September 2015, Ignacia Gonzalez was an absolute beginner. She cried that day, because her son, Junior, 6, was being bullied at school about his English pronunciation.
“You can’t help me because you don’t speak English,” he told his mother.
Born in Ecuador, Ignacia left school at 12 because her family could not afford to pay the fees, and went to work taking care of an older neighbor. Her mother did not know how to read.
In English class, at the Shirley Chisholm Day Care Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, pronunciation was the largest stumbling block for Ignacia. But, she soon stood out for her perseverance and excellent attendance, so much so that one weekday when she took Junior to the pediatrician, he said, “Mami, give me your phone. I have to call your teacher to say ‘Mami can’t come to school.’”
Ignacia’s teacher, Sejal Shah, provided not only extra support but a strong dose of compassion, sitting down after each class with Ignacia to review the pronunciation of each word the class had learned. “Now her speaking is phenomenally better,” Sejal says. “She never spoke at first, but now she’ll tell a long story about her son and his homework.”
Early in Junior’s kindergarten year, Ignacia learned that he might have to repeat the grade. But by the end of the year, thanks to her reading and doing homework with him every day, he is on track to move up a grade and recently scored 100% on a vocabulary test.
“This is a vivid illustration of how our classes actually help close the achievement gap,” Sejal says. “Ignacia has gone from feeling helpless to helping her son every day. They’re in it together.”
Ignacia is filling her home with books—–in both Spanish and English—–an important factor in school achievement. And, where she once relied on Junior to translate everyday conversations with teachers and at the doctor, she now understands many of the words spoken around her. She even provides directions when asked on the street—–earning her credentials as a “real New Yorker.”
Rosa Roman: Learning to Read along with Her Daughter
“Helping students instill a family culture of reading is a bedrock component of all Literacy Partners classes.”
Rosa Roman, a student in Literacy Partners’ English for Parents class, arrived in New York City in 2012 from Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, without knowing a word of English. Her daughter, Evelyn, was born shortly after. Since then, “everything has been a challenge,” she says, with her teacher, Sandra Cespedes, translating. “Going to the doctor; going to the grocery store.” Her frustration shows on her face, but so does a growing determination to work through new phrases until she gets them right.
Now, Rosa is starting to understand signs on the street announcing “food market” and “school.” Evelyn’s imminent enrollment in kindergarten is what brought Rosa to Literacy Partners. “Soon my daughter will be in school, and I want to help her with homework,” she says. As a mother, she wants nothing more than to read to her energetic, princess-obsessed daughter, who is at a critical moment in her own process of learning to read.
Just two weeks into the English class, a visit to the Langston Hughes library with her classmates brought Rosa a big step toward her goal: She emerged smiling with her first library card and a handful of English books. Rosa was excited to learn from the librarian how to choose age-appropriate books, and the self-service book-checkout system lets her come and go without assistance.
Helping students instill a family culture of reading is a bedrock component of all Literacy Partners classes, and Rosa has returned several times to borrow more books. “I’ve been trying to recognize the sounds of the letters in the book,” Rosa says in Spanish. “It’s an easy book so it’s good for me and my daughter. And, when I can’t read, I pretend to make it up. It feels good to read in English.”
Christina Gadsden: A Dream Realized
“I never had teachers like the ones at Literacy Partners.”
Christina Gadsden embodies the tenacity and spirit of the typical successful student at any level of education; but there is nothing typical about her. She overcame many obstacles on her path to graduation.
Christina has always been a reader. She says, “Books placed me in a different environment, and helped me see things from other people’s eyes.” She credits her long-term foster mother with teaching her to read and instilling a belief in the power of words.
Books and her journal were an escape. Growing up in the foster care system, she was moved from home to home and school to school as a teenager, and encountered numerous personal and academic obstacles. Difficult family situations coupled with unsupportive teachers became barriers to her academic success. Frustrated and dejected, Christina dropped out of school in tenth grade and found herself homeless and without a high school diploma.
“I had no vision for my future. I thought I’d always be homeless with nothing.” In 2013, while living in a shelter, Christina found Literacy Partners and began to rewrite her story.
Christina successfully earned her high school equivalency diploma in January 2015. She credits the support, encouragement, and attention of her Literacy Partners teachers with getting her through trying times and giving her the tools and confidence to pass the difficult TASC (formerly GED) exam.
“I never had teachers like the ones at Literacy Partners,” she says. “If I would lose confidence, it’s like they put a fresh battery in my back. They kept saying, ‘c’mon Christina, try again.’”
Armed with her diploma, Christina sees her future “a whole lot different,” she says. She was able to turn her part-time job into a full-time job and enrolled in the CUNY College Prep Program. Now Christina is applying to colleges to become a social worker. Ultimately, she wants to give back to the community. “That’s always been my goal,” Christina says. “I figured I could help another child avoid going through what I did.”