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Costco workers help Spanish speakers read English

  • Martina Navarro (left photo) of Calipatria and Imelda Torres of Niland write words on tablets. KEVIN MARTY PHOTO

Staff Writer

NILAND — Ever been to a foreign country without knowing how to speak or read the local lingo?

Remember how confused and lost you felt when you couldn't make head or tail of the simplest street sign and ended up drinking Coca-Cola with every meal for a week because it was the only name you recognized on the menu?

Being an adult living in America and not being able to speak or read English is a bit like that holiday abroad — except it's not nearly as exotic or exciting.

Arguably, living out here on the border, one can get by speaking only Spanish but for those adults who have school-age children in their families, there is a real need to be proficient in English.

"I just want to be able to read to my grandchildren in English as well as Spanish," is how diminutive Niland grandmother Rosa Tabliago explained her presence at the adult reading academy at Grace Smith Elementary School in Niland on Wednesday night. "All my grandchildren speak English and for me, I would like this very much, too."


In an innovative pilot program that has Grace Smith Principal Doug Kline positively ecstatic at the potential, national warehouse company Costco has employees teaching the week-long academy to 19 non-English speaking adults, most of whom have children attending local schools.

"The results of this are going to be so great," Kline said as he stood on the sidelines Wednesday night watching. "I see these parents going home being excited about the fundamentals of reading and I just know they're going to go home and work with their kids and that's exactly what educators want."

Kline acknowledged that many children who move into his school district do so speaking no English. And it's the same for their parents.

"That's an immediate barrier for these families and now that the district has done away with bilingual education, it's even more of a hardship," he said.

Costco being in the volunteering business is nothing new. The company has a history of having its staff involved with local literacy efforts with schoolchildren — it's just the adult angle that's new.

From company headquarters in Seattle on Thursday, Costco CEO Jim Senegal described the pilot program at Grace Smith as proof of the difference volunteering can make in a community.

"Any credit in this for Costco goes to the staff down at El Centro who have volunteered to help with the academy. All our people volunteer unpaid private time to help their local communities and I'm really proud of them all," Senegal said.

Local Costco employees were not the only ones involved in the academy. Employee outreach managers from Seattle and Atlanta flew in late last week to set up the academy.

"We go around the U.S. and Canada setting up literacy programs for schools in communities where we do business but this is the first time we've worked with the parents," John DeNicola, who works out of the Atlanta office, said. "This is a whole new thing for us and it's the first time we've worked with non-English speaking participants."

DeNicola, along with Scott Breckenridge and former NBA great Swen Nater from the Seattle office, were at Grace Smith earlier.

"We were here last September when we had our first summer reading camp for the kids," Breckenridge said, describing that time as a bitter-sweet experience.

His voice lowers as he describes being with the children of Grace Smith the morning of Sept. 11.

"Because we shared that horrible day with the kids here it became a sort of a bonding experience for us with the Niland community and when the program finished … well, we knew we had to come back."

Breckenridge and DeNicola both describe the Imperial Valley as being "different" from other places where they have set up literacy programs.

"This place has something special about it; people here really care about each other and there's a great sense of community," Breckenridge said.

"And Niland has Diana Peacher who begged us to come back and work with the parents," he added with a grin.

Peacher, former coordinator for the Niland Family Resource Center, was there Wednesday night, another ecstatic bystander watching as her "dream" became reality.

"These are people who have come to this country because they want to give their children more than they had in Mexico or Central America … to be successful they have to speak English and they know that."

Peacher says her excitement for the program is because, "Who knows where this will take them? Maybe they'll start a little business, get a better job, maybe go to school … and what role models they are for their children! I had this vision, this dream of this academy because I know these people are driven to succeed — they just need the tools to succeed."

Like everyone else instrumental in getting the academy off the ground, Peacher is quick to point the "finger of praise" at someone else.

"Mr. Rojas, who teaches ESL at the high school — he is directly responsible for almost all of these people coming to the academy."

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