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updated: 6/26/2014 12:00 PM

Literacy tutor helps student gain citizenship

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By Joelyn Kott
DuPage Community Foundation

Sonia Rivera of Glendale Heights lived in the United States for 17 years before learning to speak or read English.

Originally from Guatemala, Rivera managed her weekly routines with resilient patience as doctor visits, shopping at the grocery store, or simply reading a magazine were all difficult, if not impossible, without understanding English.

Time and transportation were the toughest challenges. Because Rivera cared for seven grandchildren and other children every day, she had no way of going to adult English as a Second Language class, offered free in her area. Learning English was just not possible for Rivera, until she met Evelyn Grace, an ESL tutor.

It was a Sunday, and Rivera was in the Spanish-speaking service at Puente del Pueblo in Wheaton Bible Church, when she and Grace were connected through a partnership with Literacy DuPage based in Naperville and Puente del Pueblo.

This partnership was supported by an educational grant from The DuPage Community Foundation to fund the Accessible and Customized Tutoring Program for adult learners with Literacy DuPage.

"In 2012, The American Community Survey showed more than 93,000 residents (10 percent) of DuPage County residents speak English less than well," said Bernie Steiger, executive director of Literacy DuPage. "If we accept that beyond that, there are native English speakers for whom the system failed, then that number is much higher."

During the two years following Rivera's and Grace's interaction, the two met in a community room at the Timberlake apartment complex in West Chicago where Grace taught Rivera English. The two communicated first through an Oxford English/Spanish picture dictionary because Grace does not speak Spanish herself.

"I was nervous the first time we met because I thought, what if she doesn't understand a thing I say? What are we going to do for even an hour?" Grace said.

Steiger said this is a model for Literacy DuPage.

"A person with no prior language experience actually makes the ideal ESL tutor," she said.

Literacy DuPage's required 18 hours of training teaches volunteer tutors how to create customized lesson plans to help adult learners develop English skills to communicate effectively and achieve independence. Volunteers need not have any previous experience or knowledge of a second language, Steiger said.

"Sonia, right from the beginning said, 'I want to become a U.S. citizen,'" Grace said.

As English literacy is required to become a citizen, this can be a difficult process, especially for some adult learners who are not completely literate in their native language, Steiger said.

Rivera's studies continued for two years until March 13, 2013 ­­-- the day of Rivera's citizenship test. Grace's husband, David, drove them to Chicago along with Rivera's husband, Amilcar, and their daughter, Caroline.

"We knew what to expect because Sonia had obtained a citizenship book, and we reviewed, reviewed, reviewed, so she knew all the answers," Grace said.

Rivera recalls this as "a beautiful day," and wrote a reflection story under the same name, completely in English, commemorating her experience.

"When the citizenship officer called me, I rose from my chair very quickly," she wrote, "and I thought, 'God, help me.'"

Once she responded to all of the questions correctly, the officer told Rivera she had passed the test.

"I said (to the officer), 'this morning I prayed to my God for an angel,'" she wrote, "'And you are the angel!' "

Two months later, Evelyn and David Grace again drove Sonia and Amilcar Rivera to Chicago, but this time it was for Sonia's citizenship ceremony.

When asked about her feelings on the day of her ceremony, Rivera shook her head, and was momentarily speechless.

"I was excited," said Rivera, after pausing for a moment, "and very happy, very happy, because, I am now an American citizen.

"All the time I think of America as a big mother with her arms open to welcome all the people," Rivera said.

Rivera not only gained an understanding of the English language, she also became very close with Grace, which is not uncommon in the tutoring program, Steiger said.

"That friendship is wonderful," Grace said. "And the amazing thing, that Sonia wanted to become a U.S. citizen, and it happened. That was a goal I never had, and didn't expect to experience -- to be in a courtroom with someone taking their oath. So it was way beyond what I ever expected."

Rivera continues to study English on Saturday mornings at Glenbard North High School.

"I study four hours every Saturday because I need more and more English," she said.

Grace now has taken on a new student through Literacy DuPage. But she continues to keep in touch with Rivera.

"American volunteers can give this gift of learning English to immigrants to integrate them more fully in the community and provide the foundation and building blocks for lifelong learning. That's satisfying," Grace said.