For the past three years, I have volunteered as a tutor for Even Start, a family literacy program that operated with federal funds, but the program is folding this week because Congress eliminated it back in the spring as part of the Continuing Resolution. Based on a study done several years ago that revealed some of Even Start's flaws, they determined it was a failure and not worth the $66.5 million we put into it annually (our local program operated on just $13o,000 annually). No one with a Yay vote stopped to consider that vast improvements were made to the program because of that early study, and there was no current study to show how effective the new and improved Even Start program had become, but it was a target, and that was that.
There are other literacy programs around, but none of them, at least none of them locally, provides transportation and childcare for needy people who wouldn't otherwise be able to get an education. These are people who made bad decisions as teenagers and are now trying to repair the damage and people who risked their lives to travel to America because we are the land of dreams. So, now the students of Even Start, and their children who were taught in their own classes while their parents studied, have no way to even get a GED.
I volunteered as a reader in the morning class, which was an ESL class for Hispanic immigrants. On a typical day, we had about 15 students—mostly women and mostly from Guatemala, although we had two or three men as well and people from Mexico and Puerto Rico. I was continually impressed with how hard they worked against the odds—working nights and taking care of little kids and still determined to learn English. Some of them were grossly undereducated even in their own language, so we worked on math and history and art and music and pinpointed spots on a world map. We even talked about the nature of the moon—no, it doesn't emit light of its own.
Yesterday, these ESL students wanted to thank the teachers and volunteers for all of our help, so they hosted a big lunch with their best dishes we had come to love—flautas, empenadas, tinga, rice, roasted tomato salsa...and we sat around eating and talking and laughing and crying.
One of the students I had grown closest to talked about how shy she was when she entered the program, and how she hardly knew any English. She had only had four years of school as a girl in her village, so she was starting from scratch, not just learning a new language. Now she is so advanced, she serves as an interpreter for the newer students, and she reads almost fluently. Her children are all in public school, and they are at the top of their classes and excelling in every subject because she said Even Start has helped her teach them the value of education. She started to cry as she talked to us and then the rest of us couldn't help but join her. The poor director who had worked so hard to replace funding had to leave the room because she felt she had failed. She certainly had not, but we were all feeling a combination of sorrow, anger, guilt and frustration.
As I looked around the room at these people who, on the surface may seem a drain on public funds, but in reality contribute to a strong social fabric America really, really needs, I felt so ashamed of my country. We talk a big game about being the best nation on earth, but look at who we discard? We take our neediest people and toss them aside, and all because we refuse to tighten loopholes in the tax code or to reverse the temporary tax cuts given to them during the Bush years. These people we're abandoning want to contribute to society. They want to be self-sufficient, and they work harder than anyone else I know and raise their children with a strong work ethic. It seems to me these are the people who need help now, not the top earners. That's not redistribution of wealth. It's an investment in our future as a nation, and it's being our brother's keeper.
The students gave us each a card, and I was expecting to read their signatures, but they wrote in complete sentences, which made me so proud of them. They said things like, "Thank you for all your help and your patience," "Thank you for helping us. I really enjoyed your history class," and "Thank you so much for your help. I hope I will see you soon again. God bless you." And from the woman I mentioned—"Dear Mrs. Robyn, thank you so much for everything you did with us. I really appreciate your help and patience with us. I'm so happy to meet a person like you. Love, Juana."
My dear Juana, I'm the one who is so happy to have met a person like you.
Well, I don't have $130,000, so today I can only look back at these last three years as a gift. Here is the group on our last day—I'll miss you all, and I'm sorry our priorities are out of line: