News & Blog: Learner Stories

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Alfonso GuerraIn our March 2015 e-newsletter, we introduced you to Alfonso Guerra, a native of Nicaragua, who came to the United States for better medical care, and took classes from the Literacy Center to improve his English. 

At that time he wrote: "English classes have already impacted me communicatively and comprehending better with my clients and the community. I am feeling more confident. My present and main goals now are to dominate English language, to socialize with the North American community, and looking for more customers. Finally I am happy living in U.S.A."

It was in those classes that Alfonso met Carolina Cnol, a Literacy Center learner who was an attorney and a congresswoman in her native Honduras. The two have dated for the last two years. But their story is bittersweet.

On September 8, Alfonso said goodbye to Carolina and flew from Grand Rapids to Nicaragua. Returning "home," helped by the kindness and generosity of friends and strangers, was his final wish as his prostate cancer advanced. Read more about the story, as told by his team at Spectrum Health Hospice.

This post was written by Jamie Lesman, an AmeriCorps Family Literacy Tutor

Chandra came to Grand Rapids with her family in 2012 as a refugee. She was born in Bhutan and had lived in Nepal for many years chandra copybefore coming to West Michigan. I first met Chandra at a South Godwin Head Start open house and we began our language literacy journey together in September.

During our tutoring session, we talk, listen and exchange ideas about each other’s lives, which has a strong impact on both of us. We share motherhood together, experiences of living in other countries, and the ideas of empowering our daughters by showing them what it takes to be a strong and independent woman through literacy. Chandra also volunteers at a local international church to help fellow refugee women as a Nepali interpreter.

 This article was written by Jisun Lee for The Reader, our learner newsletter. Jisun and her tutor, Elizabeth Zandstra, have been working together since April

imagesI came to Grand Rapids, Michigan last August in 2015 with my husband who studies at Calvin seminary. I have been living in Michigan for over one year.

I was born and grew up in South Korea in North-East Asia. I had never lived in other countries before coming here, so it was a challenge for me to live in the U.S.A. I thought that there would be a language and culture barrier. Moreover my family and some friends of mine were worried that I would feel lonely and it might be stressful moving to a new country. Nevertheless, since I had an interest and curiosity about the culture that I’d never experience, I hope that I could be more mature while experiencing a variety of new things.

I've met many Koreans and Americans here. They’ve helped my husband and me adapt ourselves to this new place. They’ve given us information that we didn't know well at first. Our friends here brought us food, furniture and many warm words. Although most Americans I’ve met personally could not understand what I said, they’ve treated me so kindly and were so friendly.

Also, I've discovered beautiful nature here in Grand Rapids. It is not a complex city so that I can see the high and wide sky. I enjoy very tall and big trees and beautiful Lake Michigan like the Sea. When I went to Lake Michigan for the first time, I was amazed at its size. Whenever I see the landscape, I think that the U.S.A. is a big country.

I've had so many opportunities since I've been in Grand Rapids. If I want to learn English, I can do it. There are lots of programs and volunteers in this community. I want to communicate with others in this society so, I'm learning English.

Although many parts of this culture are different from my country, sometimes it’s a little confusing. I want to learn more about the good traditions and cultures of this country. During this time in Grand Rapids, I’ll enjoy this experience. And I’ll never forget all the people who gladly helped me here. I want to be someone who can understand and help the people in need after I return to my country.

Chad Patton, Director of our Customized Workplace English program, spoke with Zina about her story. 

Zina speaks four languages, is raising two boys with her husband, and has a goal of becoming a nurse “so I can help people [and] help my family.” She also happens to be an Iraqi refugee who immigrated to the United States by way of Sweden.Zina copy

Like many other immigrants, Zina learned how to speak and understand English through watching television. I first met Zina when she came to the Literacy Center to further advance her literacy skills. She enrolled in our advanced English language classes and quickly “graduated” by reaching above a 9th grade reading level.

Katherine Payne, a Literacy Coordinator with the Adult Tutoring Program, submitted this profile of Ahmed and his tutor, Rachael.

Ahmed has been working with his tutor, Rachael, for more than one year. Ahmed, a Sudanese refugee, is incredibly devoted to improving his English skills. Since working with his tutor, he has also enrolled in English classes through the Literacy Center’s Customized Workplace English program.

Ahmed works for a local manufacturing plant that is in the process of laying off all employees at his plant due to advancement in robotic technologies. With the threat of being laid off constantly in the back of his mind, Ahmed pushes himself to constantly improve his understanding of English so that he has the skills to find his own future employment.

Quatina and her tutor Tara

Hi, my name is Quatina Michael. I have three kids, and their names are Damion, Alexis and Dae’Qwan. They go to Kentwood Public Schools. Damion is in the 12th grade, Alexis is in the 9th grade, and Dae’Qwan is in the 8th grade.

Dae’Qwan got a job this past summer raking grass. I am so proud of him, it’s his first job and he is so happy too. The kids stay with their grandma, but they come over almost every day in the summer to see us and we spend time with them going swimming, going to the movies together, just staying home watching a movie on TV, or having a picnic at the park. Over the summer they started to meet some of their cousins and an uncle they have never met before. My youngest son asked a lot of different questions about his family he never met before.

Mario Vinson has lived his entire life in Grand Rapids. It wasn’t until his case manager at Heartside Ministry suggested taking English lessons, that he discovered the Literacy Center of West Michigan.

“I wanted to find a way to get my GED.” he said.

Mario lives with a learning disability and has made great progress with the help of a tutor. Since enrolling the Adult Tutoring Program in 2015 Mario has increased his reading level from the fifth-grade to the seventh-grade.

“My favorite part has been reading Robin Hood,” he said. “I had never read that before coming here.”

Mario says that the Literacy Center provides a nice and quiet environment for him to study. He likes the staff and enjoys how his coordinator keeps him updated about his progress.

“Adverbs are the hardest,” he says about learning, “but, I am having fun.”

Mario is working with his tutor on the Reading, Social Studies, Science, and Math portions of the GED. He hopes to take the test and continue making progress.

Nineteen years ago, Ludi Trevino moved to the United States from Mexico and married her current husband, Joel. Joel and Ludi live in Grand Rapids with their three children, Andrea (17), Elias (13), and Isaac (7).

Ludi first heard about the Literacy Center through North Godwin Elementary, where her son, Isaac, attends school. Although she had enrolled in English classes when she first arrived in the US, she felt that she needed more practice. Ludi’s goal was to help all of her kids with their homework and be able to speak English with them, so one of Isaac’s teachers suggested contacting the Literacy Center.

“I was also worried about my teenage daughter,” she said. “This is the time girls get boyfriends! I wanted to know what her and her friends were talking about in English,” she said. “I wanted to be—what’s the word?—alert!”
Staying connected to the Spanish language while learning English is important to Ludi, especially for her children. At home, she and her family speak almost entirely Spanish, with the exception of watching English movies or television shows with Spanish subtitles.

Ludi has been meeting with tutors for four years improving her writing, pronunciation, and grammar. As she continues to learn more and more English, and as her kids grow up, she hopes to secure a job by using her well-practiced English skills.

A family growing together through literacy

For Ardany de Leon and Mirna Lopez, nothing is more important than empowering themselves and their three children through literacy and learning. Ardany, Mirna, Ardany Jr., Diego, and Camila regularly volunteer at Kroc Center church events, they work out together through the FitKids On the Run program, and they participate in the Literacy Center’s Family Literacy Program. Ardany and Mirna are changing their own lives and those of their children by all the effort they have put into their tutoring and by becoming increasingly involved in the community.

I’m married to a former “lost boy of Sudan” who is now a United States citizen. We have four children ranging from 11 months the 10 years old and I will be thirty years old next month.

When I grew up in South Sudan things were very difficult. I lived in the village where there was no electricity, no school, no good buildings and no hospital because our country had been in civil war for 21 years between the North and the South Sudan.

My name is Norielit, I’m from Mexico. I came from Mexico a while ago and I didn’t speak any English. I went to school a couple months. When I finished that program, I decided to call Literacy Center. They helped me to find a tutor who is helping me with my learning. I am so glad to have someone who is interested in my learning.

Together we had an interview at WOODTV 8 on eightWest in September with Terri and Rachael. This was about the tutoring program. This was my first time on television. I was very nervous, but at the same time I was very excited. They asked questions about the program and how the Literacy Center helped me to learn. The people who work in television were very friendly and nice, that helped me to feel more confident.

When Jerry came to the Literacy Center of West Michigan to request a tutor to help him improve his reading and writing skills, one of his most important goals was to be able to write a note to a member of his church. Jerry is a Deacon in his church and he likes to reach out to those who are homebound or unable to attend church activities for some reason. He often visited them in person but he also wanted to write a note to them now and then.

Jerry and his tutor, Don, worked on his writing skills and in just a matter of a few weeks, Jerry was able to send his first note. For Jerry, it is very empowering to now have the confidence and skills to do this important outreach. Since his first experience, he has continued to write notes. Jerry continues to work with his tutor refining his reading and writing skills.

My Past Does Not Define the Future

Hi, my name is Charla Peterson and I want to tell you how I came to the Literacy Center of West Michigan.

I have struggled with learning most of my life. I have tried my hardest to hide this from family and friends, being embarrassed and scared to let most people know I had this “problem.”

My mother took my sister and I out of public schools when I was entering the 4th and my sister the 6th grade. Mom decided to homeschool my sister and I. At first, mom got books for us to read and learn from, but we needed more help. As time went on, mom was helping us less and less. Not knowing better, we just went with it. We ended up further and further behind. After taking with friends about things they were learning in school I saw how much I didn’t know.

I was born in Misantla, Veracruz, Mexico. I have been living in Grand Rapids for 11 years. I am married and have three daughters. Two of them are in elementary school, and the small one is 20 months old, so she is going to a preschool.

I am a volunteer at Cesar Chavez School where my girls attend. I help at Cook Library sometimes because they greatly help the neighborhood children with their programs during the school year and in the summer.

An Important Step in My Life

My name is Veronica and my primary language is Spanish. I speak English with a strong accent. For years I told myself I need to improve my English speaking and writing. This would help me to communicate better at work and outside of work.

Because English is a difficult language to learn I always made excuses to not study. One day someone mentioned the Literacy Center to me. The Literacy Center assigned me a tutor. I have been with the tutor for a year now.

A visa lottery in Ethiopia brought Frehiwet Asfaw, her husband, Luel, and their young son, Tito to Lansing, Michigan. Luel’s sister had a house in the Lansing area where Frehiwet and her family could begin their new life. Frehiwet and Luel worked hard to build up savings for their family. She worked at a food packaging company, a toothbrush manufacturing company, a salon product supplier, and at the airport.

Antonia has had trouble with spelling/decoding spelling patterns, and there are street signs near her house she never felt confident saying correctly. After a lesson on vowel teams, she was talking about these streets and she realized she could use what she learned in a lesson on vowel teams and pronounced them correctly.

Beacon - say the name of e and the a is silent.

She said she knows how she was saying them wrong before and now she knows she'll be understood when she gives directions.

Written by Christy Dam, class instructor

My name is Silvia Guzman and I am from Mexico. I'm married and have five children. Three are living with me and two are in Mexico.

When I came to the Literacy Center I set for myself three major goals:

  1. To obtain the skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking/conversation in English.
  2. To become a United States citizen.
  3. To obtain my driver's license.

On March 29, 2016 I took my citizenship test, passed it and was sworn in as a US citizen. My tutor has worked with me for two years on this, thank-you. At the present time my tutor & I are working on obtaining a driver's license.

My son takes me out to practice on the road and my tutor helps me with the laws and identification of road signs.

After I had my interview with the Literacy Center and I was paired up with my tutor, my family life changed. My son was here just five weeks from Mexico; he had a terrible accident in Lake Michigan. He broke his neck and is paralyzed from the neck down. He spent several days in a hospital than to Mary Free Bed Hospital for several weeks. When I was up at the hospital, I needed to listen, speak and understand what those doctors were saying.

Now that he is at home, someone must be with him 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I am thankful for my tutor, Michelle who meets with me every Saturday morning for two hours or more.

Some of the extra things Michelle brings to our time together are: talking on the telephone with a salesman, reading aloud and having it recorded, than listen to see if you can understand it, reading the Michigan map, reading the mileage from city to city, finding a city, finding Michelle's vacation spot and how many miles did Michelle travel in Michigan. Sometimes we go out for lunch and coffee and always practice conversation. I went shopping and used coupons for the first time. I went to the farmers market and saw fruits & vegetables that I didn't know what they were.I bought a squash fixed it for my family and it was delicious.

Thank-you to the Literacy Center. Thank-you Michelle for your patience and time you have given me, I am thankful.

Hello, my name is Alejandra and I am 38 years old, I am from Mexico city. I have been in the U.S. for almost 16 years. I’m a mom of three girls, my husband and I work full time to afford everything for our family. I’ve worked at McDonald's for 15 years. I'm a crew trainer and it started getting hard to do my job better because my English was not very good.

I have tried to take classes in other places, I even took some in my daughter's school but they were too easy. Then I tried many other places as well but in many they said I didn’t have the requirements needed to take the classes.

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