Mobile literacy program teaches suburban immigrants

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mobile literacy program teaches suburban immigrants

Volunteer Doreen Peters, a parishioner at St. Barbara Parish in Brookfield, assists Imelda Rosales, a parishioner from St. Blase Parish in Summit/Argo, with improving her English skills. They were working together Jan. 23 as part of the School and Tutors on Wheels program. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Volunteer Reta Strecker assists Javier Ponce from St. Blase Parish. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Volunteer Mary Jo Krohn, a parishioner at St. Francis Xavier Parish in LaGrange, assists Elfaga Maciel from St. Blase. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Volunteer Jane Dolezal, a parishioner at St. Mary Parish in Riverside, assists Emelia Fernandez from St. Blase Parish with improving her English skills as part of the School and Tutors on Wheels program on Jan. 23. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

When Olga Valdivia Martin came to the United States, she could not speak English.

When she started raising her sons in Chicago’s suburbs, she still could not speak English.

It was an isolated life, she said, waiting for her husband to get home all the time, no way to communicate with most of the people around her. But it was a busy life, she said.

“I was so busy, because my husband was working a lot,” Martin said. “He was working 52 to 55 hours a week.”

Then one of her sons became ill, and not speaking English was no longer an option.

The boy was ill, and Martin was able to find a neighbor to take them to the doctor and translate. But while they were waiting, the neighbor was called away, and Martin found herself unable to explain her son’s symptoms to the doctor, or to understand the instructions the doctor gave her.

“I was crying, because my son was sick,” Martin said. “I felt so bad. I couldn’t communicate with anyone, not even the doctors.”

So Martin decided to do something about it. The Bolingbrook woman went to her local public library to find out where she could learn English, and was given information about the School on Wheels.

The School on Wheels — now School and Tutors on Wheels — is a free English literacy program for adults started and sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph. In its early years, lessons were given on a converted school bus that traveled throughout the southwest and western suburbs.

As the demand for services grew — as did the costs for maintaining and operating the bus — the organization started using other space for the lessons, but maintained its practice of taking the lessons to neighborhoods that were easily accessible to people who need them.

“It was my greatest gift to myself,” Martin said. “I went to the School on Wheels for nine years, and everything changed. Before, I felt like a blind person. I felt terrible with two little kids. The worst thing was when there was an emergency. Now, I can talk to my sons’ teachers. I can talk to the doctors. I can talk to the nurse. I can even talk to the people in the stores.”

It wasn’t easy for her to ask for help, she said, because she had primary responsibility for caring for her sons and she didn’t know her way around the area. But when she called School on Wheels, they put her on a waiting list and told her they would find a teacher for her who could work on her schedule.

“I was able to take classes very late, when my husband was home,” she said.

Eventually, she was matched up with Arlene Smith. Although Smith was available only in the mornings, Martin was able to work out the schedule. The two worked together for five years.

“She’s amazing. She’s the best teacher I can imagine,” Martin said, recalling the victories that she shared with Smith. “I would come in and say, ‘I went to the grocery store, and the guy understood me.’”

Her sons are now 18 and 15 years old, and, she said, proud of their mother.

“They know everything I went through,” Martin said.

School and Tutors on Wheels trains its tutors and provides materials. Tutors need not speak the native language of their students; Smith said she has had students who spoke Portuguese, Polish and Russian in addition to Spanish.

The school, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, has about 850 students and more than 400 tutors, said Theresa Denton, its executive director.

Over the years, it has helped more than 5,000 people learn English.

Demand has remained high in the same areas the school has always served, with locations in Bolingbrook, Lombard, Addison and Villa Park remaining popular among the school’s 15 sites.

“Until you can speak English in this country, it is very difficult to succeed,” Denton said. “We’re not just helping adults. We’re helping families. When a parent can speak English, the child doesn’t have to be a translator. The child is free to be a child.”

In addition to one-on-one tutoring every week, students who have enough English reading proficiency can join book clubs to encourage reading as well as speaking and listening skills. They also have a chance to express their opinions and have people listen to them.

Most of the students are women, Denton said. The women often don’t work full-time like their husbands so get less experience practicing English each day on the job.

Martin is one of about a dozen students Smith tutored in her 15 years with the organization. She started, she said, because she heard lots of people complaining about Spanish-speaking immigrants who did not speak English, and she thought it was an area where she could make a difference.

Smith said one reason the School on Wheels program works is that students and teachers work together for a long period of time and get to know one another. If a tutor knows what a student is most interested in learning — say, how to talk to the doctor, or how to talk to their children’s teachers — they can tailor the lessons and vocabulary.

“Those are the two big ones,” she said, “doctors and school.”

When it came to Martin, Smith said, the two ended up knowing each other very well.

“I knew what she could do, and we became very close,” Smith said. “I was interested in what she was doing not only in class, but outside of class.”

Smith said that she recommends volunteering to anyone who has the time to take on a consistent commitment.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “It’s very rewarding.”

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  • immigration
  • education
  • sisters of st. joseph

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