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Literacy Group Aids In Transition
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Oakdale Literacy Program key players: Co-founders, Pat Graham, standing and Mary Walker, left, joined by key volunteer and bilingual teacher Imelda Arellano. This year the volunteer-based group celebrates 25 years of helping community members learn to speak English. - photo by Teresa Hammond/ The Leader

One person can make a difference.

And if that one person recruits the help of another, and they another and so on — good things can come of it. This theory is perfectly demonstrated through the volunteers of the Oakdale Adult Literacy Program, also known as English for All, and the students whose lives they have altered through their teachings.

The group meets each Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at St. Mary’s Parish, located at Olive and Oak streets in Oakdale. Students in attendance are tutored on multiple levels of the English language ranging from introductory basics to reading comprehension.

The idea for the local program first occurred to community volunteer Mary Walker 25 years ago. A volunteer of Oakdale Community Christian Sharing at the time, Walker discussed the idea with fellow volunteer Pat Graham.

Walker said she saw the need for the program when interacting with the clients of Community Sharing each week. Empathizing with their challenges and frustrations, Walker along with co-founder Graham, began their effort to bring the program to Oakdale.

As members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the two women turned to the church for support. They requested space for classes to be held each week and assistance with getting the word out to the community.

Showing its support, the church opened the doors of the Parish Hall to the group and began making announcements weekly following mass.

“Through the generosity of St. Mary’s parish we’ve always had the rooms available to us,” Graham said. “St. Mary’s has been very generous with us.

“In the early days it was Mary and myself, Sally Batson and Anita and Leo Avilla,” Graham added. “In 1995 Imelda joined us.”

Imelda Arellano, bringing her talents to the group, relates to her students. As someone who once walked in their same shoes, she understands the challenges faced by her students.

Arellano came to the United States from Mexico when she was 15 years old.

“I can relate to the challenges,” she said of her relationship with her students. “Learning English opened up great opportunities for me. It helped me go to college.”

Arellano is a graduate of California State University, Los Angeles. She holds a Bachelors Degree in Spanish.

“The funny thing is I’ve never taught Spanish, only English,” she added. “I enjoy it very much. I realize the fundamentals are very important for someone to learn the English language.”

The bilingual teacher shared that she works primarily with students on the very basics of the English language including short and long vowels.

“I teach them the basics in Spanish, because that way they pick it up quicker,” she said.

“Imelda is so well versed in both languages,” Graham said. “She helps the students learn the basics and the rest of the volunteers help them with the higher levels of learning.”

The group has also received support for the past 20 years from the Family Support Network in the area of childcare. Each Monday employees of the FSN care for the children of class attendees in a separate room at the church. It is a partnership, which makes attending classes possible for many of the students.

According to Graham and Arellano, the childcare allows the women to attend with their younger children, while their older children are at school.

Long time student Angelina Aguilar is just one of the many positive examples of success achieved by the students attending the class.

Aguilar came to the United States 26 years ago and made Oakdale her home in 1987. She first learned of the group while attending mass in 1994. Often times her son Gonzalo (then five) would accompany her to class, while older siblings Carolina and Cynthia attended elementary school.

“She has done well enough in conversational English that she could run a business,” Graham said. “Now she wants to learn the grammar. One of the toughest things for the students is the prepositions.”

Aguilar recognizes her past business, Novelties and Jewelry Aguilar, as an accomplishment. While there are many things she has gained from learning English, it was the ability to be more involved with her children’s education, which was perhaps the most liberating.

“I had confidence in the things I had learned,” she said. “Thanks to Pat and Imelda. When I learned my English I had less fear, to go and talk to the teachers.”

“It’s a very important link,” Graham said of the communication between parent and teacher. “That’s why we encourage them to come and learn.”

“Every time I have a chance, I tell them they need to go and work with these teachers,” Aguilar said of her peer group. “I tell them it is so positive. They are very, very supportive.”

“I think what makes this program work is that they know I am bilingual and they are not afraid to jump in,” Arellano said.

“If it wasn’t for the community this program would not work,” she added. Arellano recognized service clubs like the American Association of University Women, or Soroptimist International of Oakdale who recently made a $500 donation to the group, as well as the other groups and organizations mentioned.

Fourteen years later, Arellano still finds the experience rewarding.

“Seeing the students, how successful they become with their communication,” she said of what she enjoys most. “To walk into a business and say ‘do you work here?’ and they say ‘no, I own the place.’ That makes you feel so good.”