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When she moved to the US, she couldn’t hold a conversation in English. Now, she’s on her way to be a nurse

Alma Manzano learns English and math at the Literacy for Life Learning Center in Williamsburg, Tuesday, Feb. 26,2020. (WYDaily/Lucretia Cunningham)
Alma Manzano learns English and math at the Literacy for Life Learning Center in Williamsburg, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (WYDaily/Lucretia Cunningham)

When Alma Manzano got the request from Lafayette High School to give a presentation on hand hygiene and flu prevention, she’d stop in her tracks astounded.

After she moved to the U.S. from El Salvador more than 20 years ago, Manzano said she knew a few words but wasn’t able to carry on a conversation in English, and was even embarrassed to go out shopping or socialize because of it.

She could hardly imagine making a professional presentation to an audience…in English.

But she did “PowerPoint and everything,” she said.

After going through post-secondary education in El Salvador to become an accountant, Manzano said after she arrived in the states and realized her certifications nor education would transfer over, she decided to work toward a career she’d always been interested in.

Manzano has been working as a certified nursing assistant at Riverside Doctors’ Hospital Williamsburg for nearly 10 years and has set her sights on becoming a registered nurse.

“I love what I do and I enjoy helping people and making them happy,” she said. “Sometimes I lay down and I think about all the different [patients] during the day and I’m learning a lot from them — it’s made me strong.”

The patients also hold Manzano in high revere, nominating her to be honored as one of Riverside’s “Champions of Caring” for 2019 though Manzano said the road to happiness wasn’t easy.

She described immigrating to the U.S. as a leap of faith, coming over without a specific goal in mind but knowing for the sake of her safety, “I have to move somewhere because I can’t be here anymore.”

Leaving her family behind, Manzano would move in with her sister’s friend who helped her get familiar with the area allowing her to take the first job she could find working in a restaurant kitchen.

“I remember some nights when I’d come home from work and cry thinking ‘what am I doing here?'” she said. “People would talk to me at the restaurant and I wouldn’t know what they were saying. I’d just smile and say ‘OK’ but I really don’t know what they said.”

During her training to become a CNA, Manzano said she failed several of her first quizzes until her teacher was successful in submitting a waiver allowing for the questions to be read aloud and Manzano to answer verbally.

“It’s interesting in this work that [you see] some people like Alma who have never studied English in school but they learn it by living and working in the community. So her oral skills are a lot strong than her reading and writing skills,” said Mary Lynch, human services coordinator at Literacy for Life.

Lynch added the nonprofit’s staff also sees the opposite, or people who have studied English in their native countries but then come to the U.S. and struggle to interact in conversations while they’re able to read and write in English.

Literacy for Life, formerly the “Adult Skills Program,” is an agency of United Way providing adults free one-on-one and small group tutoring in reading, writing, and math skills as well as instruction in English for speakers of other languages, according to the website.

Nearly 800 “learners” went through the program in 2019 and more than 400 (including Manzano) are enrolled now, Lynch said.

With ongoing and individualized instruction provided by more than 300 volunteer tutors, she also said learners can stay in the program for as long as it’s necessary to get to where they’re trying to go…because “literacy” is about so much more than reading and writing.

Adult learners have access to curricula ranging from “Empowering Parents” for parents of school-age students, to “Health Literacy” which focuses on accessing health care “the language you need to be able to read prescriptions or talk to a doctor.”

“Literacy is such a key to everything,” Lynch said.

In between her shifts at Riverside, being a wife and mom of three, Manzano also studies English and math at Literacy for Life on the William & Mary campus up to two times per week.

She said the sessions are preparing her for the Virginia Placement Test which is required for enrollment in college-credited courses, and ultimately, nursing school.

“I think it’s a blessing to have something like this in our community because they help us with different stuff at different levels. It’s very good,” Manzano said.

After studying with Literacy for Life for nearly two years, Manzano said she’s so much more confident at her job reading up on updates for medical practices and computer systems, “I’m electrocardiogram (EKG) certified now inside the hospital.”

Her newfound confidence has also allowed for helping others in the community, who like she once did, struggle to communicate at the Department of Motor Vehicles, at hospitals, or with their doctor. Manzano said she’s also taken the required course at Riverside to become one of the hospital’s official translators.

“People from different countries who come here should know it’s never too late to learn, to look for help…and to start again,” she said.

“Somebody asked me one time what [our diverse group of learners] have in common and I thought and said ‘courage,'” Lynch said. “It takes guts to walk through the door and figure out what we offer and ask for help.”

Lynch added Literacy for Learning is always looking for volunteer tutors who have a high school diploma and the time to commit to the program. No experience is necessary and you don’t have to be bilingual to apply. Learn more by clicking here. 

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