Bon Secours links English literacy and parenting skills classes

February 1, 2014


Maura Lopez, 32, of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, followed her husband, Lorenzo, to Newport News, Va., 10 years ago with dreams of a better life in the U.S. While her husband found work in the construction industry, she worked at home, raising a family that now includes a son and three daughters, ages 5 to 9.

But as her children grew, so did her unease about her lack of English language skills. "I couldn't understand instructions from the doctor's office or messages from the teachers at school," Lopez says, haltingly, with help from an interpreter.

Since she enrolled in a new English as a second language class sponsored by Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital's Family Focus program a year ago, all that has started to change.

"I am at the second level of the class now, learning to read and write some words," she says. "Now I am able to help my children with their homework, and make appointments on the phone by myself."

Best of all, Lopez says, is the confidence she has gotten from increasing her communication skills. "My children always corrected my English before, but now they compliment me and are proud of me," she says. "I feel much better about myself."

Social connection

Unlike Lopez, Rosa Madrid, 41, of Juarez, Mexico, had studied English and worked with Americans before she came to Newport News five years ago when her husband, Saul, took a job as an engineering manager at an automotive company there. "I could understand basic English and even write it, but I didn't have the confidence to speak it," she says.

With a 5-month-old daughter, Rebecca, to care for at the time, Madrid found herself isolated at home. "I didn't know anyone, and I was afraid to go out without my husband," she says.

Through a Family Focus class called Circulo de Padres Hispanos — a parent/child interactive learning group conducted in Spanish — Madrid learned about the new English as a second language class and signed up to participate last fall. "I was able to take the class because, unlike other ESL programs, this one offered child care," she says.

Now at the advanced level, she says the class has done much more for her than just help with vocabulary and pronunciation.

"I've met a lot of people from South American countries, and now I have friends to call," she says. "Before, I was so lonely and depressed in my home. This program has made me more independent; it has really changed my life."

Preventing child abuse

Those words, whether spoken in English or Spanish, are music to the ears of Delores Greene-Price, Family Focus program manager, and MaLuisa Castro, the program's English as a second language teacher.

When Bon Secours began Family Focus as a community outreach program in 1996, it had three main goals in mind: to reduce parent isolation by increasing parent-to-parent support and linking families to valuable community resources; to increase parents' knowledge of childhood behaviors and development through parent education; and to promote positive, nurturing parenting practices.

"We implemented this program to prevent child abuse and neglect by offering parent/child education classes from birth through teenage years," says Greene-Price. "It has grown to include a variety of evidence-based classes, including an interactive learning group for parents and children ages birth through 4, an Al's Pals preschool learning program for children ages 2 and a half to 4, and parent support groups like Circle of Parents."

With an initial budget of $150,000, Family Focus has grown, through grants and partnerships with community businesses, to currently serve more than 600 families, both on-site and at two area church locations. Other Bon Secours hospitals nearby — Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk, Va., and Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va. — also offer programming.

Acculturating parents

Eight years ago, because of a growing influx of immigrants in Virginia, says Greene-Price, Bon Secours began partnering with the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., to help foreign-born families become acculturated to parenting expectations here.

"We found that in many cultures, hitting, belittling and isolating children who misbehave is acceptable behavior. Parents see nothing wrong with spanking or leaving a young child at home with another child, and fathers wield the final word on parenting decisions," she says. "We needed to explain not only our expectations about appropriate behavior, but also our laws."

Though Newport News has diverse immigrant communities from Asian and African countries, by far the largest population is Hispanic, says Greene-Price. That's why Family Focus began offering parent/child learning groups in Spanish, and why, in 2010, it wrote a grant request to fund an English as a second language program targeted for those participants (though other non-English speakers are welcome as well).

"We received $7,500 through Bon Secours Health System Mission Fund in 2011 and began a morning program with 10 students," she says. "We had so many people interested in participating, just by word of mouth, that we saw a definite need to expand. The Sisters of Bon Secours Ministry gave us another $8,600 to grow the program in 2012 to 30 students. Now we are seeking outside funding to offer night classes for employed people as well."

At present, Castro, who holds a master's degree in education, is the program's sole facilitator. A native of the Philippines, she began her career teaching Japanese, Korean and Chinese students, before moving to the U.S. in 2003. She grew up with a grandmother who spoke Spanish.

"Like many ESL classes, we emphasize four different aspects of language learning — listening, speaking, reading and writing," she says. "Students are divided into basic, intermediate and advanced levels, and attend each session for four months. After completing the advanced level, we get them ready to study for the GED diploma," she says.

After its first year, Castro assessed the needs of the program's participants, and is now planning her next goal — to transition some students to citizenship classes. "We have already helped some students find jobs just by boosting their self-confidence," she says.

From left, Damaris Rodriguez, Nancy Alvarado and Diego Badilla participate in a Family Focus English as a second language class offered through Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital's Family Focus program.

Family time
What sets this English as a second language class apart from others in the area, Castro says, is, as its name suggests, the focus on family.

"First, when our parents are on-site, we have their young children as well, providing both child care and a learning environment. When the parents come back to their children's class and engage in activities with them, they are able to see how much it helps the kids interact," she says. "That's a very positive message."

Beyond that, Castro says the English as a second language classes plant the seeds for friendships. "We celebrate holidays and birthdays; we've even given baby showers," she says. "It helps to promote community as well as build social skills."

The parent/child aspect of the program is what initially drew Diego Badilla and his wife, Nancy Alvarado, both 27, from Guanajuato, Mexico, to the English as a second language class.

"Our kids, Kalane, now 8, and Brandon, 4, used to be afraid to play with the others. Now we've seen lots of positive changes," says Badilla, who has been in the U.S. for almost 12 years.

Though he already had learned to speak English through co-workers, he says the class is helping him to improve his reading and writing skills. His wife, who already can read and write English, is benefiting by practicing her speaking skills.

"I think this class will really help with our future. It is very hard to advance in a job here unless you know English," he says. "Being able to communicate with everybody is the key to success."


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.