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:

Betsy Emely Gicela Jenny

Betsy: The Power of Communication

My favorite thing is being able to communicate and talk about our children.

Betsy came to the United States in search of a good job and a better future. She lived in Canada for five years before moving to New York City. In Canada, she had a series of jobs, working in a factory and in Japanese and Chinese restaurants. She worked during the day, then spent her weekends in English class to build her language skills.

Once in New York, Betsy came to Literacy Partners, ready to build on her foundation of knowledge to improve her English. She currently works two days as a home health aide, and her husband drives Uber. Her goal is to use her increasing skills to find a better job, buy a house, and help support her aging parents.

Betsy has had a positive experience at Literacy Partners, where she is surrounded by a community of mothers. As a mother of two kids – Shayne, 5, and Bianca, 3 – this is incredibly valuable. She says, “Since we are all moms, we can talk about our kids and how to better communicate with them and help their growth. Every kid has a different problem, so we can share and help each other.” Betsy has made a lot of friends and now has a resource in her teacher and her peers to help her with questions she has about her children. 

After only two months, Betsy has already seen a difference in her skills. She says, “I feel like I have improved my listening and speaking. I can speak more and I don’t have to be scared. My favorite thing is being able to communicate and talk about our children.”

The communication has had a widespread impact beyond the classroom. Now, Betsy is able to communicate with Shayne’s teacher without a translator to learn about his school performance and how she can be more involved. She wants to help teach her children confidence and independence.

Betsy has also deepened her involvement with her children through reading. Armed with books from their first home library thanks to our Books of Their Own program, Betsy reads to Shayne and Bianca every night. Bianca has already taken on the role of “teacher,” and tells Betsy, “follow me,” as she points to the photos in the book and begins to weave a story. Similarly, Shayne can’t read yet, but creates a story using the book. 

They also build moments of connection by playing with toys together. Throughout their playtime, Betsy asks them questions about colors and shapes, creating a dialogue together.

And that’s just in two months! Betsy is looking forward to using this semester to build her English skills and use them to help Shayne and Bianca.

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.”