When Julia and Slava Hubarevich moved to Payson from Belarus less than two years ago, they could read English, but found speaking it difficult.
In Belarus, schools expose children to English starting at a very young age, but still, many people trip over speaking our complicated tongue.
For students like the Hubareviches, Rim Country Literacy Program offers English as a Second Language classes. The center also offers GED classes, and new director, Marilyn Horne, plans on offering financial literacy classes this fall, with health literacy classes starting next year.
“We want to branch out,” said Horne, who took her post in May from Barbara Gustasfson, who began suffering health problems.
“An educated work force is a productive work force,” said Horne.
“People who read are able to live life in a different way and have doors opened for them in a different way than people who can’t read.”
An illiterate person who eats at a restaurant, for instance, might always order hamburgers because he can’t read the menu. Reading the menu could open a whole new world.
ESL classes represent the center’s largest program because no other providers teach locally. About 40 students take those classes, and 10 are taking classes to prepare for the GED. The county also offers GED classes.
Horne, a former teacher from Houston, Texas, moved to Payson with her husband, Bob, last August. In Texas, she taught at low-income schools, and so she has extensive experience with English language learners.
Helping immigrants adjust to American life has become a passion for the couple.
Already, Horne has begun a Friends of Literacy group to both increase community awareness about adult education and also to raise money. And Bob teaches an ESL class at the middle school, mostly for parents of students.
In Gila County, 18 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. But considering just children under 18, nearly 25 percent live in poverty.
And 30 percent of the population over the age of 25 has not earned a high school diploma.
Horne says poverty and education are intertwined.
“People look at those numbers and say, ‘Oh, that’s in southern Gila County,’” she said. “But it’s not.”
Twelve members have already signed up for the Friends program, and Horne aims to recruit 250 members by the end of next year.
With 80 percent of Rim Literacy’s $34,000 budget coming from private donations and grants, Horne hopes Friends allows the center to increase programs, purchase needed furniture, and replace outdated ESL material.
Although Rim Country is not bursting with foreigners, Horne says a contingent exists.
Ten students out of the 38 currently taking ESL classes come from countries other than the U.S. or Mexico.
They come from India and Bangladesh, as well as the Ukraine and Belarus. Horne also wants to recruit a group of Vietnamese and Chinese who she knows live in the area to teach them English.
“Most of our students come in groups of three or four,” said Horne. For instance, the Hubareviches found Rim Literacy because of cousin Inna Tarasov, who recently moved to Payson from the Ukraine.
Also in the group from the Ukraine, former lawyer Nataliia Peters found out about RCLP from her husband, an American.
ESL educators say grouping students together based on nationality helps because they can help each other. When one student doesn’t understand a word, a student who does can translate.
“It’s rewarding to work with them because they’re motivated,” said ESL tutor Annie Boisvert. “They’re here because they choose to be.”
The classes appear to have helped. Julia especially fearlessly spits out sentences in her thick accent.
The group helps immigrants by teaching language skills so they can rebuild their lives. All four were highly educated with good jobs in their former countries, but now find it difficult to find employment.
Slava, for instance, used to work as an engineer. However, his nationwide job search has so far netted no results. Yes, the economy has shattered. But even more, employers want American work experience, says Julia.
Julia who worked with numbers, now works at Walmart. This job marks progress, however. When she first arrived, a restaurant wouldn’t even hire her to bus tables because she didn’t speak English.
But in the struggle to learn a new language, regain lost status and navigate a new culture, perhaps learning together in a group gives the new residents space to connect. They’re struggling together.