Imagine arriving in the South County from another country and trying to function for a single day without the ability to read or write in the English language.
Such is the case for hundreds of women and children each year. But thanks to a local nonprofit that continues to make great strides in combating illiteracy, clients who find their way into the Learning and Loving Education Center in Morgan Hill at 16890 Church St. are set on a path towards stability, independence and success.
Founded in 1994 by Sister Pat Davis of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in San Francisco, the LLEC annually provides education, outreach and resources to approximately 300 low-income immigrant children and women who leave with knowledge and skills that empower them to become productive members of the community.
“What women really want for themselves and their children is to be self-reliant and to be involved in the community,” says LLEC Director Christa Hanson, a career educator and former Principal of St. Mary School in Gilroy.
That rings true for Maria Chambers, who emigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico to South County 15 years ago. She credits the Center for helping her and her two sons to integrate into the community.
“It is difficult when immigrants come to America,” she said. “Without English skills, they are afraid to speak up, to ask for advice or help from others in the community.”
According to the National Center of Education, 23 percent of California citizens lack basic literacy skills. In Santa Clara County an estimated 277,000 residents (16 percent) do not have sufficient literacy skills to perform basic daily tasks that require reading, writing or the completion of forms.
Without English language skills, members of the South County community may struggle to find jobs, send their children to school or seek medical care. This is particularly true for the county's low-income immigrant population, who often feel isolated and helpless due to their illiteracy according to Hanson.
Another former LLEC client, Maria Lamas, understands what it’s like to be an immigrant who overcomes those obstacles.
Like Chambers, Lamas – who once struggled with literacy and had a desire to become more connected and involved with her community – enrolled her son in the LLEC’s pre-school program. Both women said their boys had positive memories of the program and were well prepared for their transition into local schools. Lamas also shares her knitting skills by leading a weekly class.
As she describes it, the center is “family-oriented, like a home away from home” where women can learn and also share their stories with one another in a supportive environment.
The Center's broad-based adult education program includes English literacy and computer/job skills training as well as healthcare education and practical workshops on parenting, nutrition and lifelong learning. Instruction is geared to the educational needs of clients regardless of their background, level of education or ability to pay. While adults are in class, their children between the ages of 2 and 7 can participate in the Center's day care and pre-school programs.
“For many of our clients, our classes are their first exposure to education and job skills training,” Hanson explained. “Because language skills are easier to learn as a child, adult learners must work harder to develop these skills, so we offer English literacy classes on five levels. They also have the opportunity to learn basic computer and Internet skills. Classes in sewing, quilting and other arts and crafts provide opportunities for women to learn a new skill while getting to know one another socially.”
The LLEC provides individual counseling and tutoring as well as mentoring and advocacy services. Adult Basic Education also helps clients to prepare for high school GED examinations. According to Hanson, the Center's 2013 GED program already has 10 students on track to graduate this year. Education and training programs are led by credentialed retired teachers and other trained volunteers, and a licensed counselor is also on staff on a part-time basis.
“The women who come to us are not only motivated to learn, but very diligent in their efforts,” Hanson observed. “They spend an average of three to five years with us, and many go on to join our leadership team so they can teach and mentor new members. Their experiences at the Center become a milestone in their lives, and many build friendships that last long beyond their time here.”
The LLEC relies on the generosity and support of the community in order to serve its clients.
“No one is turned away from our program,” said Hanson. “In a tough economy, grants and corporate donations are harder to come by, while demand for our services is growing. This year we're hoping the community can help us locate and install an outdoor play structure for our children to enjoy.”
LLEC is a non-denominational nonprofit organization partially sponsored by the Sisters of the Presentation. Community members can make charitable contributions, volunteer their time, or donate gently-used clothing, kitchen items, computer memory sticks, copy paper and other classroom supplies. To learn more or view the LLEC wish list, visit www.learningandloving.org.