Nonnative speakers adapt with language program
Arizona Republic
Dec. 21, 2008

by Eugene Scott - Dec. 21, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

For more than two decades, non-English speakers wanting a better command of the English language have turned to a non-profit group mainly serving residents of the Roosevelt School District.
Unlimited Potential is a family literacy program housed in a nondescript room at Southern Baptist Temple Church, but is well-known among its target audience. While each class consists of about 22 students, the waiting list for the program is at least 100 names long.
"We don't announce it to a lot of people. They come in from word of mouth, from past participants," said Sandra Amarillas, Unlimited Potential program coordinator.
Limited resources keep Unlimited Potential from serving the number of people requesting services. The organization relies heavily on individual donors but also on community grants. Season for Sharing, the annual campaign of The Arizona Republic and 12 News, has given $76,500 to help fund the two-year program.
Most of the students are mothers who must care for their children.
The mothers "want to learn English mainly to help the kids with school because they want them to do good. They want to be able to help them with their homework or even to translate at the doctor's office," Amarillas said.
Amarillas, a former participant of the program, said the first year she teaches what she calls "Survival English." The second year is a little advanced.
"What they're going to learn here is the basics - learn how to say their name and where they're from, asking and understanding the questions, a lot of writing and listening, trying to practice with the speaking," she said.
Participants have even taken on the responsibility of keeping the tuition-free Unlimited Potential going. They've raised $600 at fundraisers like yard sales since September.
The learning curve for many Unlimited Potential students is significant. Some have never had formal education in their native language, much less English. The program meets for three hours a day, four days a week.
"One woman never went to school because she had to work since she was young, because she had to help her parents," Amarillas said. "If I feel like a student should be with me another year, I'll let them stay another year so they can practice more."
Commitment is not a problem for Unlimited Potential students, Amarillas said. On average, at least 90 percent of students attend class daily.
However, some students' education has been interrupted by problems related to the economy.
"There have been some in the second-year group that have dropped because they have to help their husbands. They have to find jobs so they can help with the bills and put food on the table," Amarillas said.
That dedication to becoming bilingual is what made Amarillas want to work with Unlimited Potential full time 14 years ago, after enrolling in the program to work toward her high-school-equivalency diploma.
"I know the struggles of learning the language," she said. "I was once the one who had to help my family and interpret for everything."