How Teaching English Taught Me

The following blog is posted on behalf of Esther Hicks, Director of Community Investment at United Way DuPage/West Cook. We always say that you have the most impact when you give, advocate AND volunteer.   Over my past three years with United Way, I have definitely found this to be true.   I recently finished a two-year tutoring experience with an adult English language learner in my community, and it was literally nothing short of life-changing.   I know that the main point of tutoring or mentoring is to help your student or mentee, but especially in my case, she really helped me, too. Having grown up thoroughly middle class, it can be difficult to imagine what it’s like for someone who lives in the DuPage area to live under 100% of the Federal Poverty Level (about $22,000 for a family of four), which is the level at which we consider a family “in poverty.”   My student and her husband both work, but they are minimum-wage and somewhat seasonal jobs, so their family falls below poverty level.   Yet, somehow they make it work, and I have been so impressed with how they manage.   They have a tightly-knit extended family in the area, so her kids are often playing with cousins and they all share babysitting duty when others have to work.   They have a cellphone and some video games; they aren’t destitute, yet the family of five lives in a two-bedroom apartment. What really made an impression on me is that this family uses social services in our region that are supported by United Way in all three of our impact areas.   The literacy program that connected us is funded under our Financial Stability portfolio; her kids have all attended early childhood programs funded under our Education portfolio; and she and her husband use Access DuPage for health services, which is funded under our Health and Wellness portfolio.   They are truly the picture of the hard-working family that is able to make ends meet with a little support from community organizations. And, just like we require of our programs, I can really see the impact and results that these programs have had on her family.   Because of her increased English abilities, my student has gotten a raise and now trains newer employees at her job, and occasionally translates between Spanish-only employees and her English-only manager.  She would tell me about the healthy eating and child safety tips she received and started using from the home visitor through her youngest daughter’s early childhood program.   If she was sick and had to miss work, she would tell me that she went to her doctor and used her “medical card,” which refers to an affordable medical care program funded within our Health and Wellness portfolio. Although my student has graduated from the literacy program, I know that all she has learned will have a ripple effect throughout her family.   One of her primary goals had been to help her kids with their homework, and I know she feels more able to do that, and in turn will help ensure that they graduate high school and go on to college.   Her goal of being able to speak with doctors and teachers has already improved, and she’s an active volunteer in her children’s classrooms.   She doesn’t aspire to be a CEO or make a six-figure salary, yet I think the goals she set and the achievements she’s made are exceptional accomplishments themselves.

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