By AMY BUKVICH
Empowering Latino Parents Program provides weekday classes for English language learners; Mount Mary College students volunteer to tutor, with help from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Maria, a mother of two, came to the U.S. with no English-speaking background to help her brother care for his children prior to his death. Another turning point occurred when her youngest daughter, Diana, was hospitalized for a seizure. Maria’s difficulty communicating with the emergency room staff motivated her to begin studying English. She is now a part of the Empowering latino Parents Program sponsored by Mount Mary College.
The Empowering Latino Parents Program began in 2009 and is open to all Spanish-speaking adults in Milwaukee. Last year, more than 40 Mount Mary students volunteered as tutors. Many are involved to complete service learning hours. However, Maria is involved in order to improve her life in America.
“I come from a family of 13 children and life wasn’t easy for us,” said Maria, thinking back to life in Mexico. In 1992, she moved from Michoacán to Milwaukee to be with her brother. “It wasn’t easy for me to come to a country where I didn’t know the language,” Maria said.
Maria has participated in the program for three years now, building relationships with people. Initially she had no family in the U.S. outside of her brother’s household. She had never met her sister-in-law and before long, Maria married and began a family of her own, but felt isolated by the language barrier.
Empowering Latino Parents was founded by Mount Mary College and Notre Dame Middle School, a Catholic school for girls located on the South Side of Milwaukee. It was designed to be a resource for parents whose children attended the school, serving a 99 percent Latina population. Empowering Latino Parents’ new full-time partner is the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Wisconsin.
Empowering Latino Parents Director Erica Steele is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an Americorp Vista. Steele enlisted in the Americorps exclusively for the purpose of getting involved in this program and with people like Maria.
Steele strongly believes that Empowering Latino Parents benefits everyone involved. “The parents [in the program] are enriching the lives of our students,” Steele said.
Classes are held at the HCCW five days a week under Steele’s unique curriculum. HCCW offers many important resources for the program. For example, the HCCW lends out laptops to the language students seeking basic computer skills.
Steele also has a projector to bring American television into the classroom. Last session, the students watched “Modern Family,” a comedy about three very different American families, one of which includes a Latina parent. At the beginning of class, they discuss the new words they hear, as well as cultural nuances.
It is important to note that not all volunteers of the program are bilingual. Those that don’t speak Spanish work with intermediate students, often struggling with spelling and grammar. Unilingual volunteers work with advanced learners who wish to expand their vocabulary.
Lorissa Najera-lester, an admissions counselor at Mount Mary, has been working with Maria for two years. She started tutoring for Empowering Latino Parents because of her previous involvement in English as a Second Language Programs during her college years.
“The personal connection with one person is an enriching and inspiring experience, and we have a lot of fun together. We laugh, we cry, we hope,” Najera-Lester said.
Before beginning the program, Maria’s formal education didn’t go beyond a third grade level. Now she takes math and English classes to help her daughters study. Her dream is to see them graduate from college.
“For me to have Lorissa is a blessing,” Maria said.