Kids expand horizons while parents learn English

By Tom Joyce

July 1, 2013

It was a sweltering day at L.H. Jones Family Resource Center this past week, but everyone was so busy nobody seemed to notice — with the exception of a reporter who was perspiring heavily.

On one area of the grounds a group of kids, ages 5 to 13, worked in a garden filled with a lush array of herbs such as sweet basil, spicy oregano and cilantro.

In another part of the former school campus, a second bunch of youngsters painted a mural on an outside wall of the J.J. Jones Alumni Auditorium, which upon completion will depict children holding hands while encircling the globe.

And inside a classroom, the whirring of an air-conditioner was almost drowned out by the sounds of excited preschoolers engaged in various activities designed to teach them basic English and other skills.

This might be the scenario for any number of so-called summer enrichment programs for kids, but this one is different — and not just because nearly all the participants are of Latino descent. While the kids are taking part in the different activities at the L.H. Jones center, their mothers — about 20 in all — are busy learning English elsewhere in the building.

Contrary to what might be a popular brief, there are Spanish-speaking residents in the area who want desperately to learn English. But that’s not always easy for mothers with children, who can attend classes during the school year but have no way to care for them in the summer as they continue English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

“We realized that child care was an issue,” said Polly Long of Mount Airy City Schools, who coordinates the eLink program that enables youths to gain employment experience, and the Creating Successful Learning program. Long also works with the summer ESL effort at the resource center.

“This is about our fourth year,” she said of that instruction.

It spawned a needed addition last year which enabled children of ESL students to attend activities at L.H. Jones Family Resource Center while their mothers were learning the new language.

Long said the motivation for the summer component is not to baby-sit, but expand youngsters’ knowledge and skills.

“That’s why we applied for this grant,” she said of a $32,000 annual award from the Edward M. Armfield, Sr. Foundation, which provides scholarships and educational grants.

Although the youth program was launched last year, it is much more developed this summer. It is operating under the theme “Together We Can Make a Better World,” for which the mural of kids holding hands around the globe will be a visual symbol.

“We have some children who come to us who don’t know English at all,” Long said in reference to the preschool segment that serves about 15 children ages 2 to 5. About 20 others in the 5-to-13 age group take part in the program offered each day from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., for a total of 35 participants.

“All of this is free,” Long said of the summer activities.

The younger group learns about colors, shapes and other basic skills in addition to language development, all aligned with the regular Head Start program offered at the center.

“We encourage them to speak English in here,” teacher Sherry Brown said.

“They ALL want to learn English,” Long emphasized.

Growing Success

For the older kids, the bar has been set a little higher, which is where the gardening and other activities come into play.

In setting up the expanded youth program this summer, Long said it was arranged in three areas: beautification of the center grounds, the painting of the mural and entrepreneurship.

Using donated or “recycled” plants from members of the community, the appearance segment of the program has focused on making the center a more attractive place — a simple objective.

The herb gardening, however, could become more than just a summer pastime due to its emphasis on entrepreneurship. This has involved planting various herbs in raised beds which will be sold upon reaching maturity. Marigolds also have been grown to keep bugs way, with lavender plants part of the mix.

“Children are going to pick the herbs,” Long said, and package them. “Ultimately, they will sell them at the farmers market.”

The kids’ herb products will be offered from underneath a tent at the farmers market that operates on Tuesday afternoons in a lot beside the Mount Airy Post Office. “I hope to be there by at least next week,” Long said Tuesday.

In addition to picking and packaging the herbs, the kids will include recipes for their use as an added enticement to consumers.

“And they will understand how you start with a little plant,” Long said of a teaching exercise that could become a profitable enterprise. “I wanted them to understand entrepreneurship.”

A side line has involved the concoction of unique ice cream flavors such as strawberry basil and pineapple cilantro.

“The girls want to know how to do lotions and soaps,” Long said of ways in which the herb garden project seems to keep evolving.

“When we started this,” she added, “the children did not know what herbs were.”

It is hoped that the garden project will become a long-term endeavor. “It would be wonderful if the parents take it over after the children return to school,” Long said.

Meanwhile, Javier Fuerte, 15, Giovanny Salgado, 14, and other youths were busy with the mural project, under the guidance of Karl Allen, on-site administrator of the Head Start program at the Jones resource center.

“Working with Mr. Karl!” was what Javier said first when asked about his favorite part of the summer program as he painted one of the children’s faces depicted in the scene for the “Together We Can Make a Better World” theme.

“And being able to spend more time outside,” Javier added.

Allen said he appeared before the J.J. Jones Alumni governing board three times regarding the mural project. It agreed to let the children paint the scene on a back wall of the auditorium — adding color to an ordinary-looking brick surface.

Giovanny said “having fun and learning stuff” have been the favorite parts of his summertime experience along with playing basketball in the gym.

Moms Praise Effort

As the children worked at the different locations on the center grounds last week, their mothers were busy honing their language skills in classrooms there.

Many were like Aracela Hernandez, a mother of three, who said the opportunity to take English classes — while also having her children involved in enrichment activities — was “very important” to her.

“I can help my children,” Hernandez said.

Carmen Mungia said involvement with the center, which started with ESL classes, has allowed her to make progress with words and concepts to the point she has reached the next level. “I am able to come to GED (general equivalency diploma) classes.”

Anna Reyes, another student, described the struggles she encountered before becoming more proficient in the language. “One of the things I remember is not speaking any English — I would pay $50 to somebody per hour to translate for me,” said Reyes, who now can go to the doctor’s office and other locations and communicate on her own.

Herlinda McDaniel met her husband, an American, after he went to Mexico to set up machinery in a plant where she worked. At the time, neither knew the other’s language.

“I didn’t know about this program,” said McDaniel, who now can speak English well and will be continuing her education as a result.

“They come here because they want to learn,” Long said of the adults. “And they want their children to speak English.”

Participants praised Long for her role in getting the summer program started, along with the city school system and Surry Community College for supporting the effort.

Long, in turn, credited the public for recognizing the need for such instruction and helping to make it a reality.

This includes local businesses such as Brannock & Hiatt Furniture, which fixed the air-conditioner in the preschooler’s room; Sherwin-Williams, which provided hundreds of dollars’ worth of paint; and Walmart’s providing of brushes and other supplies.

“It’s a community effort,” Long said. “It’s all about teaching.”

Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or