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CASCADE, Iowa (AP) — When Maria Landa immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, it didn’t take long for the then-14-year-old to learn how a lack of English can impact even the simplest parts of life.

“I remember my father took us to McDonald’s, and he told me I could order whatever I want but I had to order,” Landa said. “When I got my food, I saw that there were no fries, and my father said, ‘You’ll do better next time.'”

However, Landa’s understanding of English barely developed in the ensuing years. Her need to work to help support her family led her to drop out of school, and leave behind a chance to learn the new language spoken by many around her.

Now 31, Landa lives in Cascade and works in Dyersville, and she still struggles with English. It can make many daily tasks, like ordering food from a restaurant or communicating with her doctor, frustratingly difficult.

It also started impacting how much she could help her two daughters, Ruby, 4, and Perla, 11.

“I want to be able to help my daughters with their homework,” Landa said. “It’s hard for me. My daughter wants me to read to her, but I don’t know how.”

Landa always was interested in taking English classes, but her 12-hour work shifts and caring for her children made it impossible for her to enroll.

Then, a new opportunity emerged. She was approached by one of her daughters’ teachers, who offered her a chance to enroll in free English and high school classes on weeknights.

The classes would be held four nights per week, and child care and food would be provided.

All she had to do was show up.

Landa thought it was too good to be true.

She soon learned that it was all real, and it was all thanks to the community members of Cascade.

“I always thought that none of our neighbors really cared about us,” Landa said. “I cannot believe they want to help us. I am very thankful.”

Landa is one of about 30 adult community members who have taken night classes at Cascade Elementary School since August, the Telegraph Herald reported .

Two nights per week, she learns English. Another two nights a week, she takes high-school-equivalency classes.

Before every class, students and teachers gather for a free dinner provided by Cascade residents.

Most students bring their children to the classes. The children are watched by volunteers, often students from Cascade Junior-Senior High School.

About 50 volunteers have assisted the program in some capacity. Nearly the entire program is community run, with the exception of the teachers, who are hired by the program’s organizers but are paid through donations from local businesses.

The program was started by three Cascade natives who, for several years, have wanted to help the city’s Spanish-speaking population.

The idea was hatched by Sarah Palmer, an English as a second language teacher at Cascade Elementary School, and Kay Hoffman, who teaches reading recovery.

In the 10 years she has taught in Cascade, Palmer said, she always was looking for ways to help the parents of her students.

Last year, the two teachers were approached by Amy Manternach, vice president of finance and philanthropic services at Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. Manternach, who lives in Cascade, also wanted to assist the Spanish-speaking population of her hometown.

“I’ve always wanted to help them in some way, but I didn’t know how,” Manternach said. “Eventually, I heard about what Kay and Sarah were trying to do, and we decided to get together.”

When Manternach asked what the best thing would be to give to these families, both Palmer and Hoffman already knew.

“We thought the most empowering thing to give them would be the language and education,” Palmer said. “Those two things are essential to succeed in this country, and it’s something that many of them don’t have.”

In early spring, the three women started working toward establishing a program.

Palmer said they started by asking possible students what the main hurdles would be to attending night classes.

Almost all said the same thing: food and child care.

“Those were the biggest barriers for almost all of them,” Palmer said. “We knew those were things that we would need to address.”

Throughout the summer, the three worked tirelessly to raise money for the program and line up volunteers.

Palmer said the program received early support from community members.

“There was never a problem to find people who wanted to help,” she said. “People in the community really stepped up.”

Joan Hoffmann is one of those who immediately volunteered. Every month, she and seven other women provide a meal for class attendees and their children.

“We all work together to provide a full meal for everyone,” Hoffmann said. “It’s a big group effort.”

Hoffmann said she wanted to connect to the Spanish-speaking residents of Cascade, who she feels have been mostly isolated from the rest of the community.

“I’ve always thought that we can be much more welcoming than we have been,” Hoffmann said. “This is the kind of thing that can help us integrate them into the community. It will bring us all together.”

Charity Rausch also provides meals. She said she volunteered because of her desire to unite the entire community.

“I think this is helping cross a big barrier for them to be a part of Cascade,” Rausch said. “We want them to feel welcome here.”

To address child-care needs, Palmer and Hoffman reached out to Cascade Junior-Senior High School for volunteers.

“The high school helped in spreading the word, and then we had plenty of kids saying they wanted to help,” Palmer said. “Some of them used to be students of ours.”

Emili Vega, an 18-year-old senior, is one of Palmer’s former students who has volunteered multiple times to watch the children of those attending the night classes.

Vega moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 1 year old. She remembers growing up and experiencing firsthand the challenges that come with not knowing English. Growing up in a Spanish-speaking household, Vega did not begin learning English until she entered public school.

“It was hard when you didn’t understand the words people were saying to you,” Vega said. “You couldn’t even communicate with your friends if you wanted to.”

After graduation, Vega intends to go to school for cosmetology. She noted that she feels lucky to have come to the U.S. at an early age, where she was able to learn English in school. By volunteering in the program, she hopes to help give a similar opportunity to others.

“This is really going to be great for them,” Vega said. “Life is going to be a lot easier for them after this.”

In late August, the program started. Palmer said the first night of class had more than 30 students, more than organizers expected.

“It was clear that word got around, and a lot of people were interested,” Palmer said.

Many of them came to both learn English and take the high school courses. Some enrolled only for the high school courses, and others were there only to learn English.

Dania Davis is one of the students who comes for English classes.

In January, she immigrated from her hometown in Panama with her husband, Juan Alvarado, and two children, Juan and Jania.

She said she waited 13 years to have her immigration approved by the U.S. government, but she was determined for her children to have a better life in this country.

In Panama, Davis worked with children with disabilities as a physical therapist. Her husband worked on the Panama Canal as an engineer.

However, without being fluent in English, they both were limited to taking labor-intensive jobs when they moved to Cascade.

Davis now works in the laundry room for a local nursing home. She said the work is fine, but she wants to learn English so she can be recertified as a physical therapist and get back to helping children.

“I love working with children with disabilities,” Davis said. “I’ve always loved helping children, and I want to do that again.”

While the classes aim to directly benefit local Spanish-speaking parents, Palmer said she believes the children in those families will benefit as well.

In many of those families, the children are the most fluent in English due to their education in public schools.

Hoffman said this often creates a reliance on the children to act as translators for the parents for a range of tasks, such as visits to the doctor or managing bank accounts.

“They tend to know things that they shouldn’t have to know at that age,” Hoffman said. “A kid shouldn’t need to worry about those daily struggles of managing family life, but that’s often the position that they’re in.”

Palmer said this can even extend to children missing days of school because they are needed for important family business.

“Sometimes, there are emergencies where these families don’t have a choice,” Palmer said. “No one wants to take their kids out of school, but there are times when these parents need their kids to get something done.”

Maria Landa said she often has her daughter, Perla, translate for her when they are out together.

“There are times when I want to say something, but she knows it better,” Landa said. “She is very good at English.”

Perla said her mother often struggled with communicating when they would go to a store.

“We’d be at stores, and she would be like, ‘What are they saying?'” Perla said. “It was good for me to be there to help her out.”

She said the English classes already have dramatically improved her mother’s English, and that the two of them are starting to talk in English at home.

“She can help me with math now,” Perla said. “Last year, I would ask her, and she didn’t know. Now, I don’t have to go to school all the time to get help because she can help me.”

Molly Recker, a teacher at Cascade Elementary School, volunteers every Wednesday to help watch the night-class students’ children. She said she believes in the benefits that the classes are providing to both the parents and the kids.

“It’s important for kids to have an adult at home who can help them with homework,” Recker said. “We’re investing in our parents, so that they’ll be able to better invest in their kids.”

While the initial month of the program drew more than 30 attendees, Palmer said, now a little more than 10 attend every class.

Palmer said part of this is due to a waning of interest, but there also have been other incidents that have driven some students away. The most notable decline in students came in September, after President Donald Trump announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It allowed young immigrants living in the country illegally who entered as minors to apply for a two-year deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. Lawmakers still are debating a compromise that would allow elements of the program to stay in place.

Palmer said several of the Cascade program’s attendees were part of DACA and several others planned to apply for the program in the future.

When its end was announced, many of them felt that the classes were pointless if they faced the possibility of deportation, she said. So many of them quit.

“They figured they weren’t going to get anywhere if deportation was right around the corner,” Palmer said. “It just didn’t seem worth it anymore to them.”

At the end of December, the program will conclude its first semester. Hoffman said organizers plan to continue the program for a second semester, although some changes are planned — such as reducing the number of nights when meals are provided — because of the smaller class size.

Palmer said she has seen progress in many of the students’ ability to speak English. Although it will not be easy, she hopes that they stick with the program.

“I think this could do a lot of good for them,” Palmer said. “The entire community is there for them, and they all seem eager to improve their lives.”

Landa said she is grateful to her daughters’ teachers and the Cascade community for helping her improve the life of her family.

She recalled a past time when her daughter was scheduled to perform in a choir concert at school. Although Landa wished to attend, she feared the possibility of someone discovering she did not know English. So, she stayed home.

“I was worried that someone would say something to me, and I would not know what to say,” Landa said. “I did not want to be the only person there that did not understand.”

Landa said she always regretted not going to the concert.

Now, thanks to the generosity of others, she looks forward to her next chance to come to school to hear her daughter sing.

“I want to be a good mother,” Landa said. “I want to be there for my daughters.”


Information from: Telegraph Herald,