Students' Success Stories 2020-21
We all enjoy success stories. They are positive messages about overcoming obstacles, working hard for the reward, and finding satisfaction in completing challenges. Read about the students who have obtained citizenship, those who escaped war torn countries and now have assimilated into American society and absorbed our culture, and those who finally read a bedtime story to a young child or grandchild. That last achievement has a special significance for a Basic Literacy student after a lifetime of frustration and low self-esteem. Here at Literacy Volunteers of America we like to celebrate all those positive events in our students’ lives. Sometimes we celebrate with hugs and treats, but most often, we share these achievements with others through this page on our website. That way all of our LVA community can share in the celebration of their success!
Haeckel has taken on some tough tasks in life, and remarkable ones, including years spent as the stage and technical director of one of the most important performance centers in his native Brazilian state of Bahia.
Now, as a fairly recent immigrant, he finds himself tasked with learning English well enough to gain social autonomy. And to Haeckel, that’s everything.
“I am here right now, learning as fast as I can, because I can’t bother a lot of other people to help,” Haeckel explained. “For example, to go to the doctor. Or to file my income tax, which I have to do right now. I don’t like to ask people to do that for me. I think I have to try to do things like that by myself.”
Haeckel enrolled in LVA’s literacy program two years ago, soon after he arrived in the states with his wife, Alejandra, who is also a literacy student, and his teenage son. He first attended classes at the Passaic Public Library and later was assigned to work with two volunteer tutors, whom he meets remotely due to coronavirus restrictions on gatherings.
Tutor Jaspreet Kaur described Heackel as a very serious student, one who is eager to learn. “He is a fast learner,” Jaspreet told us. “There are very few times when I have to repeat whatever I teach him. He is supportive and patient with his classmates. I like when he talks about his family and tells how he sews dresses and blouses for his beautiful wife and she adores him.”
Tutor Chris Wallerstein said “he’s an absolute pleasure to work with, always smiling and enjoying himself. He’s hard-working and diligent and it’s great to see him progress.”
Haeckel was born in the state of Bahia, Brazil, where he was raised both on his father’s cocoa farm in Ilhéus and Salvador, the state capitol. He studied mechanics at a Salvador vocational school and later earned a bachelor’s degree in geography at Federal University of Bahia. In between, he spent some time in the U.S.
“I always liked it here,” he said. “I decided to come here and give my son a better opportunity, an opportunity to learn everything better. A better life.”
In Salvador, Haeckel worked for decades as both the stage director, and also the technical director, at Teatro Castro Alves, the state’s largest and most prestigious performance theater, home of the Bahia Symphony Orchestra.
Here he works at a local airport. Haeckel is considered an essential worker and he spent much of the pandemic at his workplace. When we spoke, he was home on quarantine, after an exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
He said he misses his job, where he works with folks from all over the world who use English to communicate. He credits the program, and especially his tutors, with helping him obtain the skills to find work.
“They help me so much,” Haeckel said of his tutors. “We talk about everything – food, anything I want to know they try to help me.”
Nervous and depressed, Rosa Devora-Nunez with her two-year-old daughter in tow arrived in the United States. Rosa and her daughter had stayed behind in the Dominican Republic to finish up some family business while her husband was putting down roots in the United States. Her husband met them at the airport and upon seeing his face, Rosa cried tears of joy. “I was very happy when I saw him,” Rosa said.
That was 2016. Fast forward to 2021 and this Dominican native has made a comfortable life for herself in the bustling suburbs just 12 miles outside of New York City. Rosa has enrolled her daughter in school, reads with her daughter who is now in second grade, studies English with two tutors at Literacy Volunteers of America, Essex & Passaic Counties, works part time, and collapses on her couch with her husband at night to watch Gunsmoke, America’s longest running American television western that spanned two decades.
But life for Rosa was not always this hectic. As matter of fact living in the Dominican Republic was quite the opposite. “I was born in my house in a small village,” Rosa said. “I had a beautiful childhood.” Being the oldest of five children, Rosa enjoyed spending time with her 3 sisters and one brother. “When I was a child, I liked to dance. Dancing is very popular in our culture,” Rosa said. “We also liked to swim in the river, and to fish for shrimp. We played ball outside.”
Childhood merged with becoming a young adult, and Rosa entered college. However, she did maintain some of her ideals from childhood. Rosa attended Universidad Abierta Para Adultos in Santiago to study early childhood education. And, with the help of her devoted LVA tutors, Rosa plans to continue her education. “I want to go back to school in the United States and finish my degree so I can teach Pre-K,” Rosa said.
She heard about LVA through a friend who suggested Rosa come to the Bloomfield Public Library. Upon her arrival, Rosa saw tutors and students with notebooks scattered about tables in the library who were deeply engaged in reading materials and conversation. “I saw the other students and I thought, ‘I could do that,’ “Rosa said. “Being in the classes has been good for me. I have learned to do new things,” she said. “I can talk to my daughter’s teachers. I read with my daughter every day.”
Tutor Steve Pranis interjected, “She learns more from her daughter than she does me.” Steve added, Rosa is a very engaged student in our tutoring sessions. She asks questions when she does not understand and really works hard on the homework I assign.” And, as a testament to her love of life and “beautiful childhood,” Steve also said, Rosa is quick to laugh and share stories about her life. She is always a joy to have in class.” Tutor Enid Friedman summed things up with her statement, “Rosa and I have been working together for a long while now. She is a thoughtful, compassionate and self-motivated woman. She is teaching me.”
Five children ranging from ages 20 years old to 8 years old. None in school at this point due to COVID-19. Stay at home mom. Husband works all day. Some women may refer to this situation as their “worst nightmare.”
But, not to Literacy Volunteers of America student Frida. She is living out her dream in the United States. This Peruvian native left a high paying administrative job at age 21 to chart her unknown course in the United States.
“I wanted to come to the United States because my aunt lived here,” Frida said. After 11 years, she and her father finally received the necessary paperwork to leave the country. Frida left life behind in the seaside village of El Callao where she lived as a little girl and was raised by her dad. “By the time I got my first job in administration in Peru, my paperwork that gave me permission to travel finally came back,” Frida said. “My boss tried to pay me to stay at the job.”
Shortly after her arrival in New Jersey, Frida took a job in production in a factory. “Most of the time, I worked with Spanish speaking people. I felt comfortable with people who spoke my language,” Frida said. “This is where I made my mistake.”
Frida’s pastor encouraged her to study English and that led her on a direct path to the LVA office at the Bloomfield Public Library. “I found Jorge. He told me about tutoring classes. It is a blessing,” Frida said. “In my country, to take these classes would be so expensive.”
Frida enrolled in LVA’s classes at the Passaic Public Library. “I went for the first level of English and also took ServSafe classes,” Frida said. ServSafe is a food and beverage safety training and certificate program administered by the U.S. National Restaurant Association. “I took them over the computer and it was awesome,” she said.
“Moms have dreams also. I have two issues going on in my life. Since I like to cook,” Frida said, “I would like to have my own business someday. I also know I have to learn more English. I think it was God who took me to the ServSafe classes to find a great teacher,” she said.
Frida is now studying English remotely with two different LVA tutors both of whom she speaks very highly. “Karen and Kathleen are both wonderful tutors. The program is great,” Frida said. I feel like crying every time I take my lessons.”
Frida’s children also speak English with her. “I read to them and they read to me. Since I have had so much practice with my children, I am improving,” Frida said.
During gloomy moments of the pandemic, Carolina tries to think of more joyful times, like the childhood years she spent playing in trees with her sisters in Costa Rica and picking mangoes, tangerines, and oranges on her family’s land.
As kids they shared fresh bread and hot coffee with their grandmother, a family tradition, as they heard stories passed down from generations. And they rode horses trained by their father, a professional horse handler.
So, of course, she feels for today’s children, many of them quarantined at home, their lives consumed by remote classes and video games but little real contact with other children or time spent playing in the fresh air.
“Kids now are focused on their tablets or phones,” said Carolina, a literacy student and lover of the outdoors. “They are very distracted and they don’t notice the beautiful world and environment that they have around them. They grew up with phones and technology around them. They are in a very, very bad moment. You need to spend time with other kids. It is good for your personality and development.”
For that matter, Carolina’s life was not exactly spared by the health crisis. She was laid off at work and her language classes were moved from library sessions with tutors to the online platforms that students everywhere resorted to when schools and libraries closed due to coronavirus social distancing restrictions.
But the restrictions, which at times makes her feel “like I am in a cage,” haven’t kept her house-bound.
“I still like to go outside,” Carolina explained. “I go to a big parking lot and practice roller blading because there is nobody there.”
Nor has remote instruction slowed her drive to learn. In fact, in recent months, Carolina has rifled through English classes designed for foreign language speakers, reaching basic literacy levels that are focused more sharply on developing reading and writing skills.
But, no doubt, it’s been an era of ups and downs for a woman who’d done pretty well in her native country, graduating from the Latin University of Costa Rica at Heredia, the nation’s largest private university, with a business administration degree and a concentration in sales and marketing.
It was also a long way from her new field, working at a dry cleaner after she followed a boyfriend to the U.S. and married him.
“I came here and started all over again,” she said. “When you come from another country, you are changing your life and you start again.”
When she lost her job, she was encouraged by her employer to return when financial conditions improved. At the time, no one knew how long the pandemic would last. For Carolina, it didn’t matter.
“They said you can come back when the pandemic ends,” she said. “I am not a person who can sit around. I applied at another company and I got it. I work for a laboratory, Aerotek, in data entry.”
She landed her new position in May and is still there. Her goal is to find work in marketing, the field she studied and prepared for. And, if you know Carolina, you know the smart money is on her getting there.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” is not just a maxim heard in a moment of desperation for the local pro football team.
For hundreds of literacy students like Pamela Wayloo, whose opportunities to attend school as a child in rural Guyana were severely limited, it’s the tenet that keeps them going, even in a pandemic that’s changed the course of adult education.
“It was a hard life,” Pamela said, when asked to describe her childhood years. “I went to school until I was about 10 years old, but the teachers didn’t teach us anything.”
Pamela and her two sisters were raised by their uncle and their grandmother. “My uncle drove a tank trunk and a bus. He would also plant crops,” she said. “My grandma was good. She always cooked. My two sisters and I would go back and forth between my grandma’s and uncle’s houses.”
Pamela said she’d never even been out of her own small village until August 2001. It was then that she travelled to the United States and started her life anew. Shortly after her arrival, Pamela met up with her cousin in New Jersey who worked in a clothing store. “She helped me to get a job there,” Pamela said. “I liked working with the customers and talking to different people in the store.”
Speaking English wasn’t an issue for Pamela; it’s the native language of Guyana. But reading and writing, for someone with so little formal schooling, was another matter. So when Pamela saw an opportunity to enroll in LVA, where her sister was a student, she jumped on it. She was determined to learn to read and write in order to have a steady income and also support her young children.
“If she can learn, then I can learn, too,” Pamela said in reference to her sibling. She currently works with two tutors, Charlotte and Lynn, and, for several years studied with Ford, a former tutor who got her off to a good start. “I liked studying with him,” Pamela said. “He was a very nice person.”
Charlotte works with Pamela two hours a week with an emphasis on reading. “I break words down into small parts (phonemes and Elkonin boxes) and congratulate her when she decodes new words. Pam is such a gentle soul and is now much more relaxed and confident.”
Both Charlotte and Lynn say Pamela’s reading has excelled and so has her vocabulary. She recently finished studying for the New Jersey driving test and both tutors say she is ready to ace it.
But Pamela has a larger goal in mind: her children’s education. “Pam is prepared to take the test, but she is not going to the DMV because of COVID and she doesn’t want to be away from her kids,” Charlotte said. “Pam is determined for them to get the best education they possibly can even during these difficult times.”
Pamela echoed Charlotte’s words by saying, “I don’t want to travel to the DMV and wait in long lines. I don’t want to leave my children. I want to stay home and make sure they do their schoolwork. Even though they are not going to school in person, they have educational opportunities that I didn’t.”
According to her tutor Lynn, “We have faced challenges such as Covid-19, distance learning, data usage, running out of ink, and she never let me or herself down by handwriting entire worksheets and then answering the questions. Pamela Wayloo is my ‘Student of the year.’ Pamela is a superstar and has accomplished so much during her LVA journey.”
Little did Serhad know that studying acting in college would pay dividends in his later life. There, at Yildiz University in Istanbul, Serhad studied mechanical engineering to make a living, and acting to make a life.
“We mostly studied pantomime and body language,” Serhad said. These skills laid the groundwork for Serhad to become multilingual. Looking back to his acting classes, he realized that learning a new language was grounded in the Total Physical Response technique that is used widely by many ESOL teachers, including tutors at Literacy Volunteers of America.
The Total Physical Response method, TPR, was created by psychologist Dr. James Asher. Simply put, The Teacher Toolkit defines, “TPR as a method of teaching language or vocabulary concepts by using physical movement to react to verbal input.” Who knew that when we played “Simon Says” as children, our teachers were using TPR?
Serhad’s love for culture opened doors for him to learn different languages and different lifestyles. “Every four or five years we moved to another town because my father was a judge,” Serhad said. “If you are a judge, you are like an officer in the army and move when you are told to move.”
Born in Artvin, Turkey, next to the Georgian border, Serhad has lived in Russia, Italy, France, Portugal, and Spain. And, he has become familiar with their cultures and languages.
Among his years on the road, Serhad lived in Siberia for five years and almost 10 years in Moscow. “I like Russian culture. I learned not only an additional language, I also learned another culture,” he said. Serhad moved to Russia in 1994. “That was during a very big change in Russian culture. I saw that money was not so important,” he said. “People were not so concerned about what they would do tomorrow. They lived in the moment.” Serhad saw a lot of theatre in Russia which kept his love for acting and appreciation of the arts alive. “Everything was free,” he said. “To have an arts education, you did not have to pay.”
Serhad moved to the United States in 2018 and settled in New Jersey. Shortly after arriving, he was searching on the internet to find a way to learn yet another language… English. “I saw the Literacy Volunteers of America website and after that went to the Bloomfield Library to register. I wanted to take their intensive in-person classes (Monday – Thursday 2 hours a day) at Berkeley College but the coronavirus hit,” Serhad said.
Jorge Chavez, one of LVA’s student coordinators, was quick to pair Serhad with two tutors, Bob and Lisa, both with different styles. Serhad uses safe social distancing protocol with his teacher Bob, with whom he works outside. “Bob and I meet in person and social distance or we talk on the phone if the weather does not allow us to meet outside,” Serhad said. “Lisa has a topic planned each week and she uses a lot of fun music in our virtual lessons. Both are good tutors. I am so satisfied,” he added.
By the delight in his voice and the confidence he exudes for having established a life or himself, his wife, and two daughters in Montclair, one can tell Serhad is not acting.
Yue was raised in a traditional family in Liaoning, on the shore of the Yellow Sea, the northernmost coastal province of the People's Republic of China.
There, single adult children tend to live with their parents and, once engaged, opt for large traditional weddings, with receptions in restaurants packed with relatives.
But, even as a young woman, Yue knew that was not the life she wanted.
For a while she worked as a waitress in a large hotel restaurant, a busy place with a capacity of 500 diners. She saw little future in that hectic job and, in time, worked her way up to a management position in the hotel.
But after five years of arranging employee schedules and negotiating fees with vendors, she’d had enough. “I wanted to travel,” she said.
Emulating the success of her Chinese sister-in-law, who lived in Europe after studying in France and Germany, Yue applied for and received a student visa to the U.S.
“I wanted to look at the world,” Yue explained. “My mother just said, ‘Oh my God.’”
She moved to the U.S. in 2000 and lived with a friend in Parsippany. In the apartment next door, she met a Chinese national studying for a master’s degree in nuclear physics. In 2002, they were married in a small and quiet ceremony at New York City Hall. Of the two, he’s a little more traditional.
“We cook Chinese food at home, but when we go to a restaurant, I eat steak,” said Yue, who also uses the nickname “Sofia”. “I love Popeye’s chicken. But my husband doesn't like it so I have to sneak out.”
Early on, Yue realized that English was key to a successful life in the states.
She enrolled in ESOL classes at the Hilton Branch of the Maplewood Memorial Library, a joint program run by the library and LVA. She remained there for three sessions. And she signed up for small group classes with LVA tutors.
“At the start, I was scared because I felt my English was still very bad. My teachers were patient and I now feel very comfortable,” said Yue.
“Whenever I send homework, she gets it done,” said Mary Kao, one of Yue’s tutors. “She’s not hesitant to stop me and ask me why is something said a certain way.”
They spend a lot of time on English pronunciation, a sometimes-difficult transition for Mandarin speakers. When the pandemic first made in-person classes risky, their small group, which includes a student from Costa Rica, worked by telephone. Later, they switched to Skype video sessions, Mary said.
Yue earned a teaching degree in China. She doesn’t work in the states but wants to become a hospital volunteer. “I want to help people,” she said.
In 2005, Yue and her husband travelled to China to meet each other’s parents. “We had a traditional Chinese wedding with 400 people and a reception in a restaurant,” she said.
Some traditions never die.
After leaving Jamaica and landing in Jersey, Robert has discovered a new passion... learning literacy.
“When I came to America, I could not sound a letter. I could not write my name,” Robert said. Now, reading new words has become an integral part of his daily routine. Robert’s tutor, “Mr. Will,” as Robert calls him, offers a constant supply of new material for Robert to study.
And study, he does. “When I go to work, anytime I get a break, I study. Since I have started with Will, I hardly sleep,” Robert said. “I try and read whatever I can wherever I go.
Robert spends his days working in housekeeping at a local hospital. He was recently awarded “Best Worker.” Robert’s award came as no surprise to anyone, especially Will. In describing Robert Will said, “Robert’s tenacity and persistence as a student show in the reading progress he has made. Every week when he comes into a tutoring session, he has mastered a new concept or skill.”
A strong work ethic is Robert’s key to his success. Raised in humble surroundings in a farming town in Jamaica, Robert and his 10 siblings did not have the opportunity to attend school. Instead, they worked in the fields picking corn, peas, and bananas. His mother, with children in tow, would then take the crops to the market for sale to the villagers. Looking back at his childhood, Robert has happy memories. “It was special being surrounded by people who loved me.”
In March 2014, Robert had the opportunity to come to live with his sister who had already established residence in the United States. In April of that same year, Robert started work at a restaurant. From there, he went to an interview at his current place of employment and was hired on the spot.
“When I came to the United States,” Robert said, “I could not speak properly. I spoke a broken language.” But that has now changed. “Mr. Will is a good tutor. He is a very, very nice man.” And Will is duly impressed with Robert’s success. “Every week when he comes into a tutoring session, he has mastered a new concept or skill. This progress can only be attributed to his hard work and sincere desire to improve his literacy: he has taken full control of his learning which I fully admire,” Will said. “Robert knows what it means to work hard, both with his literacy work and in his job. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Literacy Volunteers is proud to have Robert as a student and positive role model to others. Robert has been in our program for less than a year. Will said, “The progress that he has made is unbelievable. He is now reading chapter books at a third grade level.”
Barbara, an ESOL student from France, wrote her story as an engaging memoir, which follows and was edited for length.
I was born and grew up close to Paris. The Louvre and the Orsay museum had no secrets for me when I was a child. We bathe in the middle of works of art without realizing it.
My studies took place at the Beaux-Arts in Paris and then at the Sorbonne. I lived in the Quartier Latin and in Montmartre. I spent most of my life in the City of Lights.
I worked as a journalist for the Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde diplomatique which are national newspapers, France Culture radio and also the Capa press agency. Being a woman in a world of men - because the editors are still overwhelmingly male, except in newsrooms like Vogue or Elle - is a real challenge. As women, we must impose ourselves. It’s a real fight!
I mainly wrote articles on international politics, dealing with social issues and environmental issues. You remember the movie “Erin Brockovich”? I did a similar investigation. My editor had nicknamed me “Erin”. It was trying, but also very humanly rewarding.
After scanning the banks of the Seine and walking across Paris on all sides, the day I had the opportunity to change scenery, I said yes, right away. Not that Paris bored me, but because discovering other horizons was exciting.
My husband, my daughter and I, first moved to Sydney, Australia. It is difficult to go further. It’s the end of the world! After one year, my husband was transferred to New York. We had three months to get used to the idea of changing country again.
This is my third year in the United States. I had taken language courses in Australia, which allowed me to order coffee, at least. I’m exaggerating, sort of. My English learned in France was pretty basic. Our English teachers are French. This partly explains our disastrous accent.
When I arrived in New York City, everything I saw was familiar to me and at the same time everything was extraordinary: the streets, the taxis, the buildings…The sound universe also: the sirens of firefighters, those of the police, or trains.
Surprised to see white eggs (they are yellow in France), order Chinese food in cardboard boxes like in the movies, cry while looking for cheese and desperately looking for a baguette… It was little things like that. I was amazed by the kindness of the people here. Welcoming neighbors, who say hello, it was very new to me.
What is fascinating is discovering a world city. There are absolutely all nationalities in New York City. My daughter was immediately taken care of by the staff of her school so that she had a good English level.
Unlike France, one can take language courses for free. Without the language, we are alone. Human beings are social animals. We need others. It is essential to speak the language of the country in which we live. I found the LVA program and it saved my life. Abby and Rosalee are my two tutors. I’m gradually learning to speak English better. They are both benevolent, patient and undoubtedly competent. Thanks to my tutors, I hope to resume my job as a journalist.