John has been a volunteer with Canal Alliance for many years. He has served as a member of our Board of Directors, a teacher, and a mentor. He is also a member of our Aliados de Canal Alliance program, which is a group of committed advocates who make a recurring investment in support of the dreams of hard-working immigrant families in Marin.
Gracias, John, for all that you do for our community.
I had been involved with Canal Alliance for some time and thought that there might be a need for mentors for students who, for scheduling or other reasons, could not take advantage of established programs at C.A., but who could use help. Guided by the Social Services Team at Canal Alliance, who suggested students who might benefit, I began mentoring a young person. Perhaps it would work out; perhaps not. Maybe the idea would spread; maybe not, but even if nothing further came of it, an individual student might benefit.
The first young person I worked with came from Guatemala about four years ago. He was interested in writing poetry and so, mostly, we worked to improve his English by translating his poems. Eventually, we produced a book of his poems in Spanish (with English translations). He gave a reading at a Canal Event in Mill Valley that some of you may have seen. He has since returned to Guatemala.
Subsequently, I began working with another Guatemalan youngster who arrived when he was sixteen with his mother who came to watch over him. She left several other children at home. He had been to elementary school in Guatemala but immediately was thrown into high school here in San Rafael. His first language was Achi; Spanish was his second language. He spoke no English when he entered high school here. We have worked together for several years now, on English primarily, but on other subjects as well. He has just successfully completed eleventh grade. Because of his extremely full schedule (he works two jobs after school and on weekends) it is difficult for him to participate in language classes or other programs. We meet whenever our schedules are compatible, usually once a week for 1-2 hours in an office that is free at CA, or, when Canal Alliance is closed on a holiday, we work together at Starbucks where he can have a cappuccino and a sandwich.
He has gone from being lost in school (but always trying hard) to being recognized by some of his teachers as the smart, hard-working student that he is. He is concerned about making mistakes, but is beginning to be willing to speak to people in English; he has a phenomenal memory, spells amazingly well, is able to read and understand basic stories and is gaining mastery over the tenses and colloquial expressions.
In the short term, he realizes the importance of being comfortable in English; the better his language becomes, the better the part-time jobs he can get. I think it is likely that his mother will return to Guatemala at some point and he will be on his own, and his English skills will be even more important as he looks for full-time work or further education.
Watching how hard his life is, and how hard he is willing to work to make a life here, makes helping him with his studies (other than algebra!) make the limited help I can offer extremely satisfying, but it has also been a pleasure to get to know him and his family outside of the tutoring work.
I have also taken him and his mom (and recently, a little sister and his stepfather) to visit local sites like the San Francisco zoo, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. Neither he nor his mother had ever seen the ocean before. He and his mom have also joined us at home for celebratory dinners several times.
It’s really not clear whether it’s my student and his family who benefit most from the drop-in-the-bucket of help and support I can provide, because I feel so rewarded and lucky to be contributing something — however minimal. It reminds me constantly of the struggle that is life for so many in the Canal and the pressing needs that Canal Alliance works to address.