Program builds bridges for language learners

NEWPORT BEACH — When Effy Sanchez's children were growing up, she didn't speak English well enough to read to them.

Instead, she watched her husband introduce them to the world of Dr. Seuss.

As the Costa Mesa resident's English improved, she made up for lost time.

With "Green Eggs and Ham" in hand, Sanchez, 48, read the book aloud to her 19-year-old daughter.

"I'm very happy to read to her," Sanchez said. "It's never too late."

Sanchez, a native Spanish-speaker, was honored Thursday morning by the Newport Beach Public Library Literacy Services' sixth annual International Literacy Day celebration at the Central Library.

Sanchez was recognized with the Rochelle Hoffman Memorial Award for her efforts to work on her English over the last 18 months with tutor Vicky Smith.

"She's been a joy of a student to work with," said Smith, who nominated Sanchez for the award. "She has a positive attitude and is ready to take anything on."

Hoffman, who served as a tutor from 2002 until her death in 2004, volunteered throughout her terminal illness until she was too sick to continue. The memorial award was created to honor the "learner" who made the most progress toward his or her goals each year.

About 110 volunteer tutors and about 150 learners are involved in Newport/Mesa ProLiteracy, which helps adult Newport-Mesa residents improve their reading, writing and pronunciation.

The program helps people from around the world — Italy, Russia, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and others — who don't know English as their first language, said Literacy Coordinator Cherall Weiss.

About 20% of the learners, though, are American-born, native English speakers who fell through the cracks and never learned to read and write, Weiss said.

The program's participants have achieved a number of successes this year, from being accepted to college and receiving high school diplomas to getting driver's licenses and becoming U.S. citizens, Weiss said.

"We hope this program provides a bridge to help every one of our learners over their stumbling block," she said.

Sanchez came to America from Mexico 27 years ago when she married.

She was too busy with her children to formally learn English, but began to pick up the language by watching "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on TV with her son.

Though it wasn't until her son was 5 that she realized she needed to get down to business and learn the language.

While speaking in Spanish with her son in Kmart, he loudly said that she needed to speak English.

"That made me so embarrassed," she said. "I know in my head that I need to learn English."

So she volunteered in the kindergarten classrooms at her children's school and tried an adult education school — but she found the other students were more interested in dating her than learning. She left after a month.

By her 30s, Sanchez started to feel comfortable with the language, but still needed help with reading and writing.

It was her supervisor at the nonprofit MIKA, where Sanchez is the coordinator for a K-12 after-school program, who told her about Newport Beach's course.

The program's flexibility and one-on-one tutoring suited Sanchez, and she feels like she made progress with her speech, vocabulary and grammar.

"Now I have more confidence," she said. "I no be afraid of new things."

During the tutoring, Smith turned from mentor to friend for Sanchez as the two met weekly.

"I've gotten a dear friend," Smith said, tearing up. "I makes me feel good to help my community, too."

The two discovered they were neighbors and that their sons were good friends while attending Newport Harbor High School. They went over to each other's house and Smith's son even tutored Sanchez's son.

"It's pretty amazing," Smith said. "It's meant to be, so you do feel like there's a special bond."

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

How To Help

To volunteer with Newport/Mesa ProLiteracy, stop by at 10 a.m. Oct. 13 at the Newport Beach Public Library for a tutor orientation. For more information call (949) 717-3874 or email

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