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Student Success Spotlights - 2017

Use the links below to see specific people, or browse at your leisure!



cristina and her family

"I feel lost and grateful at the same time."

Sound familiar? So many felt that way after Harvey took such a terrible toll on our city. Grappling with a new normal, and grieving so much loss - and yet grateful. Grateful for unstinting generosity from friends and strangers alike, for the loving arms of family, for a warm and caring community across the city that rallied round to hold people steady and tell them, "We will not let you fall."

apartment before
Cristina's apartment before the storms
Cristina's apartment after the flooding, as the mold takes over
Ruined by mud and water, Cristina's car waits to be towed away

A week after the storm, Cristina found herself sleeping on the floor of a friend's apartment with her husband and son. In the past week, she'd watched the rising floodwaters claim first her car, then their apartment and almost everything in it. She and her family had left their neighborhood on a boat piloted by three community-minded rescuers from San Antonio.

And now here she was, lying on the floor of her friend's small apartment in the darkness, wondering what would happen next - feeling lost, and grateful, at the same time.

But Cristina had a support system standing ready to help her.

Cristina had you.

“Literacy Advance was the first one to call me, and to help me. I didn’t know where to go to get food for my family, or uniforms for my son. You were there for me. I will never forget that.”

Through Literacy Advance Transition services, Cristina was quickly linked to practical help. She took home food, clothes, and school supplies, all ready for her because of generous donations to our students in the aftermath of the storm, from people like you. We referred her to Memorial Assistance Ministries (MAM) for further recovery resources and help finding permanent housing.

And Cristina was one of the first students back in her Saturday English class when Literacy Advance finally re-opened, two weeks after the storms.

"Coming to my class was good for me. It made me feel I was slowly getting back to a normal life, and my mind was occupied with good things in class. What happened to me and my family wasn’t easy."

There's still a long road to recovery for Cristina and her family. But she's walking down that road to recovery with confidence and greater optimism every day.

And that's because of you. Your kindness and care have made the difference for this family, and others like them - and will continue to do so as the city continues to get back to normal. Thank you.


Literacy Advance Transition services were stretched to capacity in the weeks and months after Harvey - and there's still more to do. As we've moved beyond urgent recovery needs, there's been more and more requests for help with jobs, and more need for practical, work-related assistance.

Will you stand by these students and families for the long haul as they work to regain their stability?

Your gift today will continue making the difference for Cristina and other students just like her. We cannot do it without you. Thank you for caring!


Lama's Story

statue of libertyNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

- Emma Lazarus

There are many ways to become an exile. One of the oldest is war. And that's what drove Lama from her comfortable home, and her business studies, and her previously happy life, in Damascus, Syria. War had been raging for three years and she knew that she could no longer stay in her homeland. It was time to leave home behind, and start again.

Lama's husband was born in the United States, so she qualified for a K visa, which allows the spouse of an American citizen to join them in the USA. But that's about the only thing that was straightforward.

"It was a shock at the beginning. Everything was very different from my country. It was hard, I felt lonely being here with no family, no friends. My husband was working and I spent a lot of time alone. I wasn’t ready to work."

It's estimated that getting through culture shock in a new country can take years. Everything's different, and that means everything. What brand of cereal do you buy when they're all new to you? (Multiply that question by the whole grocery store, which is probably a lot larger than the ones you were used to). How do you figure out necessary paperwork when you don't know the names of any of the agencies? How do you make new friends when your childhood experiences, the books you read, the movies you enjoy, have all been different? How do you understand and navigate a social faux pas when the customs you grew up with were different?

And how do you start with ANYTHING when you don't know the language?

Lama set out to overcome that obstacle first. Some of her husband’s relatives were students at Literacy Advance, and they recommended us. "They told me that this school was a very good place to learn."

And her first impression of Literacy Advance was very positive. "Everyone was so friendly and they made me feel welcome. There were people from so many different countries; I knew I can improve my English here."

The classes turned out to be just what she needed - a combination of practical help with learning English, and a place to be in community with other people.

lama graduation
Lama with Wilcrest Program Manager Heather on her graduation day in November 2016.

"My classes helped so much, so much. I love that the tutors would ask us about what we wanted to learn, and they teach me things I can use in my normal, daily life. It wasn’t only grammar; they really teach me useful conversations and words to use outside my class.

I also liked the journals because always ask about my goals and the things I wanted to learn. My classes helped me to learn about other cultures, and to meet new people. There are so many students from different countries and we can only communicate in English. My classes also helped me to feel confident again.

When I took my final test, and you told me I graduated, you also said that I was ready to volunteer. You recommended me to volunteer helping other people. And that helped me so much. I can now use my English to help people. I can practice my English and do something good in my free time. I can help myself and others."

lama front desk
Lama volunteering at the front desk at Wilcrest in June 2017.

Lama’s now a regular office volunteer at the Wilcrest front desk. Her professional and calm demeanor helping callers on the phone and assisting volunteers, students, and visitors to the campus have been an inspiration for other students, as well as a significant help to the staff. Students see Lama handling phone calls and tasks so well that they also want to volunteer with us, and feel renewed confidence that one day soon, they too will be able to handle tasks like these - in English.

This volunteerism is achieving two things - the first is very practical. Lama's working with Diana, the Literacy Advance Transition Coach, to finalize her resume and to prepare for interviews as she applies for bank teller jobs. This work experience is a key part. She says:

"I’m ready now for the next step in my life. I feel ready to have a job, I’m confident in myself, I know I can do a good job."

And the second thing? Lama is so thankful for all the opportunities she's had so far and she's eager to give back to her new homeland.

“Thanks for help people to learn English and to help them to give back to this country. This is so important!”   


June was Immigrant Heritage Month. In July we celebrate this nation's independence. For generations, this country has been made great by exiles and immigrants, just like Lama. And the welcome you give helps ensure their success.  Will you embrace the next newcomer who's facing the daunting task of starting over? Your gift today will provide English classes - and community. Thank you!


sandra and husband


When Sandra finally got up the nerve to pursue her dream, she went all in. She quit her job in housekeeping, and registered for classes - English classes at Literacy Advance, and classes at a private training school to pursue her certification in hemodialysis.

Sandra paid her tuition at the private school, and bought her books and uniform. She was excited - finally she was on her way to achieving her dream of working in the medical field.

Three days later, that dream came crashing down. Sandra left the school in tears, vowing never to go back. The instructor and some of her classmates had made fun of her English, and laughed when she had tried to participate in the classes. She felt singled out and inadequate. She felt stupid to have thought she could ever achieve her dream.

Sandra came to Literacy Advance for an appointment with Diana, the Transition Coach. Visibly upset, she talked about what had happened.

“What I was thinking?! I will never speak good English, I will never be able to get a good job, a job that I like. And I lost that money [spent on books and tuition]. My husband is the only one working; he wanted to support me with my dreams. I feel so ashamed. This is not the example I want for my son.”

When Diana urged her to ask for a refund from the private school, Sandra shook her head adamantly. She felt too ashamed to even call the school.

Diana tried a different approach. She explained that there were other options - ways to get a CNA certification and later, hemodialysis certification. Thanks to programs like United Way THRIVE, some of those certification programs were even FREE! Sandra couldn't believe what she was hearing.

But she was still hesitant; her confidence was shaken by her experience in the other classes. Diana showed Sandra a map of the local area, showing how close Memorial Assistance Ministries (MAM) is to Literacy Advance. She encouraged Sandra to at least visit MAM, and enquire about their CNA certification programs. Still unsure, Sandra said she'd think about it.

Days later, she was back at Literacy Advance, all smiles.

"I did it! I registered for CNA classes at MAM, and they were free! And the people were so nice. They said I can do it!"

Since then, Sandra has gone from sandra and familystrength to strength. She's completed her CNA certification, and gone on to an Employment Certification and a Customer Service Certification, completing both. She's stayed consistent in her attendance at her Literacy Advance English classes, so her English keeps improving. Sandra says that her English classes have helped her become more confident, and because they are small group classes, she says she gets more individual attention from the tutor, which helps her to ask questions and make more progress.

And now the successes are piling up! Sandra has a part-time job, working as a CNA. Her growing English and self-confidence motivated her to apply for U.S. citizenship, and she's waiting to be scheduled for her citizenship interview.

"It is incredible to have a place where you can learn English for free, and where is also guidance to get you connected with the help that you need. If it wasn’t for this program, I would never know about other opportunities, and would never gotten my certifications."

sandra, CNASandra is close to achieving her dream. In addition to her part-time job, she's started volunteering in a clinic to practice her skills in phlebotomy and gain further experience. She'll complete her hemodialysis certification later this year. Soon, she'll finish the citizenship process. As we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month throughout June, we could hardly imagine a more classic story of the American Dream.


So much more is possible because of you. Every gift matters, especially yours, as we work every day to ensure a brighter future for our community and for families like Sandra's. Together, we’re able to do so much more, and make the American Dream come true for people across Houston. Your gift will make dreams come true for another family - will you give today?



Hend and KhambrelHend was our 2017 guest of honor at Scrabble in the City. She was interviewed by emcee Khambrel Marshall of KPRC, telling just a small part of her story to the guests. We are so proud of Hend, who has only been in classes since late 2016, for being confident to speak to a crowd in her second language!

As well as being our Scrabble guest speaker, Hend appears in our most recent Between the Lines newsletter. Read more here.

Here's a transcript of Hend's Scrabble interview:

Khambrel:    Thank you for being here tonight, Hend! You grew up in Egypt, is that right?

Hend:        Yes, that’s right, in Cairo.

Khambrel:    What do you think about when you remember your childhood?

Hend:        I remember being very happy. I had a great life with my father and mother. I have 2 brothers and 2 sisters, and I remember us all playing together. Hide and seek was my favorite game. My mother was always very supportive of me right through childhood and through my college years.

Khambrel:    So how did you end up in Houston?

Hend:    I got married to an engineer, and we came to the United States together. First we went to Boston, and then when he was transferred, we came to Houston.

Khambrel:    Did you start learning English in Boston?

Hend:    No, I started learning English in Egypt, but we didn’t practice much so I couldn’t speak well when I first arrived. It was my first time in the United States and I didn’t know the people, the culture, it was all new.

Khambrel:    So how did you feel, in a city where you couldn’t speak the language?

Hend:    It was horrible for me. I have my own accent and the people could not understand me, they would make me feel like I’m not good. I used to have this feeling all the time in Boston, so I don’t like Boston, but I like Houston.

Interviewer:    Really? What makes Houston different for you?

Hend:    People are friendly and nice and very kind here, not like in Boston. They smile to you. There is more community and more people like me.

Interviewer:    What brought you to Literacy Advance?

Hend:    I was very shy when we first moved to the United States, but when I Hend and Roslynknew we would be here forever I knew I could not be shy and that I needed to learn. I came to Literacy Advance in September of 2016. My tutor, Ms Roslyn, I love her so much. She gives me so much information and helps me with pronunciation. When I say the right pronunciation, I feel confident, and people can understand me without always saying “Sorry?” and “What did you say?”

Interviewer:    What plans do you have for yourself and your children?

Hend:    I have started my own business, baking cakes. I like creativity, it’s my first hobby. I made a website, and I’m enjoying all the possibilities of having my own business.

And I want to use my degree. I have a degree in dermatology, from Egypt, but first I want to be more confident with speaking English more and more. I’m looking at HCC for classes in ultrasound technology.

My husband and I have two kids – the oldest is great at science and math, and she wants to be a scientist. The other is too little yet to know what he wants.
So with all of that, I’m very busy! But I enjoy being busy and active, so it’s good.

Interviewer:    That sounds wonderful. To finish, what would you like to say to the people here tonight, who help make free English classes possible for people like you?

Hend:        I just want to say:

I am so pleased to be standing here today talking to you all in English. Less than a year ago that would have been very challenging but I was very lucky to be able to go to this program and start to gain confidence talking to people in English, and even here in front of a crowd, woohoo!

Everyone at Literacy Advance has supported me so much. When I talk to anyone here, they all help me to start my own life in Houston, my own business. Diana even helped me with my resume and internet searching and all those things.

When you support Literacy Advance, you give a chance for many students to learn English, and you give them hope for knowing other people, to meet together and to know the cultures of other countries. I am very grateful.



Larry Dierker spoke briefly at Scrabble too - and highlighted how Hend's Khambrel and Larrystory shows the impact of literacy on both the adults and the children in a family. Hend's kids have such a bright future, and it becomes even brighter the more their parents are confidently engaged with the society and culture around them. That comes through language.

Your gift today can help both parents and kids - invest in the parents, and the kids come along too! Will you give the gift of English - and a future - to a family today?


nelson computer


“I couldn’t read, and it was haunting me.”

Nelson didn't attend school. After his mother died when he was just three years old, life was tough. His father married again but the new stepmother didn't believe in education. She kept the kids out of school, and none of Nelson's brothers or sisters got an education either. In Nigeria, where Nelson grew up, it was easier to keep a kid out of school than it would be here in the U.S., and no one intervened on his behalf.

At 15, Nelson moved out of his unhappy family home and got a job in the oil services industry. At 22 came some happiness - he met the woman who would soon be his wife. Her family life had been much more stable; she had completed school and even gone to college.  She encouraged Nelson to pursue his dreams.

In 2011, Nelson and his wife moved to Houston. Right away, she looked for classes for him on the internet and he signed up within weeks of his arrival. Their home is quite a distance from Literacy Advance, but Nelson was undaunted.

“The first time I told Mitch [Nelson's volunteer tutor], he said, ‘How can you make it to class?!’ I said, ‘Because I need this education.  That place will not be far from me, because I need it.

Since starting at Literacy Advance in 2011, Nelson has completed more than 500 hours of class! In addition to his reading class, he attends the Reading Practice Group for extra help, and has been part of our Transition services from the earliest days.

Nelson is currently working in maintenance at Rooms to Go.  Last year, his workplace asked him to start writing reports about his work.  He wasn’t able to do this on his own, so he used to call his wife for help and she would text the information to him.  But now, he writes each report himself, without assistance.  

During his most recent workplace review, Nelson pointed out his new skills, his work ethic, and the value he brings to the company, and negotiated a higher raise for himself than was originally offered. He credits his tutor, Mitch, with helping him gain the confidence to do such a thing:

“He would tell me, Nelson, if you want something, no matter who the person is, look him eyeball to eyeball and tell him. Don’t be shy. Mitch always told me, anything you want to do, have courage.  I was always scared to talk.  If you know the thing is good, go for it!  When I applied that, it worked for me.”

Thanks in part to the promotions and raises he has earned in recent years, Nelson and his wife were able to buy a new car. And last summer they also bought a house!

As well as his burgeoning reading skills, Nelson has taken on the challenge of computer literacy. He's attended Literacy Advance computer classes, and borrowed a laptop from the student Laptop Loan program so that he can continue practicing at home.

“Before, I couldn’t open the computer.  If you put a laptop here, I don’t know how to turn it on.  I had to call my wife.  But now, I know where to go.”  

Nelson recently told us that, since childhood, he would go to church all the time. He always carried a Bible with him, but he never opened it because he didn’t know how to read the words. Now, when he’s on break at work, he spends time reading his Bible. He knew all of the stories because he had heard them before, but had never read them on his own.

“Now I read it myself and I understand what they are saying! When I read it, I say, wow! It’s me that is reading this? I can’t believe it.”

He compares it to when someone travels and they tell you about the place they visited – they tell you it’s very beautiful, but you haven’t seen it yourself, so you don’t really know. “But when you go there, and you see it yourself, you can have the story. It’s like this. When they talk about a story in the Bible, it’s ok, but when I read it, I know. It comes alive.”

Nelson has big plans. He's continuing to work on reading and grammar with his tutors, and is preparing for the citizenship tests, which he hopes to take later this year. And while he and his wife haven't yet started a family, he's thinking about the future, and how he can influence future children.

“My hope for the future… I want to know how to read and write so I can teach my children.  When you give support to your children, you get the best from them.”  

“In Nigeria, you can’t get this kind of thing.  But in America, they want you to know your rights, and that’s very good.  I see so many people [at Literacy Advance] and I say, ‘Wow, these people don’t know how to read, I’m not the only one.’  America gives people the opportunity to learn.  Your heart is there, I got to give it to you guys. You’re helping us.”

I really appreciate coming to this place. I would not have survived. I’m proud of myself and my wife is proud of me.  If you don’t know how to do something before, but now you know how to do it, you will be proud.  I’m very happy.”


Nelson's thanks are for YOU. You gave him the opportunity to learn. You're helping him, and you're a big part of the reason he's proud and happy. Thank you.

Many more students just like Nelson are waiting for their chance. Students who have it in them to work hard, to learn, to transform their own life and to help make Houston more prosperous for all of us. Your donation will help another student, just like Nelson, to have a chance. Will you give the gift of opportunity today?


bianica hugo


"The first thing I thought was, what am I going to do all this time?"

We have to be up-front with our new students, and one of the things we tell all of them at New Student Registration is that they'll have to wait.

No one likes the wait - not us, not the students, not the tutors - but there are just so many people who need classes, and not enough rooms or volunteer tutors. Check the waitlist on any given day and it will be at least 300, very likely more. But rather than cancel all New Student Registrations until we clear the list (we couldn't bear saying "no" to the calls we get every day, asking for classes), we try to manage the numbers of new students registering, and the wait time. We also try to have a variety of opportunities that students can get started with while they wait. It's a balancing act that never works out perfectly for anyone, but it's the best we can do right now.

So Bianica knew that she'd have to wait a while until she was matched with a volunteer tutor. She was willing to wait, but she wanted to do SOMETHING.

"I started going to the group class for reading on Wednesday and Saturday; it was good for me.  I started reading out loud; that was something I was afraid to do. I had a very good tutor. Then one day somebody told me about the computer class. I always wanted to learn Excel and Microsoft Word." 

Bianica was relieved when she talked to the Transition Coach at Literacy Advance and heard that there were still openings in the computer class. Not only was it one of her personal goals to learn about computers, she was just glad to be in a class. She said it kept her motivated to keep coming; keep learning.

She'd known for a while that she needed to improve her computer skills.

"I didn’t feel confident. I'm good at my job, but when I looked at my co-workers working on Excel or other software, I felt bad because I didn’t know how to work on the computer using those programs. I was afraid to ask my co-workers because they would think I wanted to learn and take their jobs, and they would know I didn’t have the skills. I was afraid to step out and look for better opportunities.” 

Asked how she felt after completing two 50-hour classes, one in Word and one in Excel, Bianica's answer is brimming with confidence and emotion.

"I loved the classes! I’m prepared for my next job, and I'm not afraid anymore! I want to keep learning; I feel good about myself!"

bianica computer certificate

Bianica with her computer teacher, Hugo Soto (right), and Mr. Carlos Lopez of the Mexican Institute, with her SECOND computer class certificate of completion. Literacy Advance partners with the Mexican Institute to offer computer literacy classes.

The last time Bianica met with the Transition Coach, that confidence was just as evident. She renewed her laptop loan from Literacy Advance, to keep practicing Excel and Word at home, and to look for jobs online. She said she's been applying for jobs with her updated resume and that she's not only had some calls for interviews, she's also had a couple of job offers.  

She's also very motivated to keep learning, and was excited when the Transition Coach talked to her about a referral to the Neuhaus Education Center for extra classes. Neuhaus specializes in learning differences, and Bianica was excited about the possibility of classes there as she has dyslexia and never got the proper help to learn during her schooling.

"My mother didn’t know anything about dyslexia and the school didn’t help me either. I’m excited about this, I don’t want to repeat the same cycle, I want to show my grandson and my kids that there are options."


Bianica has broken the cycle. There ARE options, and she'll be the first to help her kids and grandson if they need help finding their way forward.

See what your support can do? THANK YOU. You provided computer classes, a laptop loan program, and reading group - all crucial things that Bianica could do while she waited. Your gift today will help more of that great stuff happen. Thank you - none of this could happen without the kindness of people like you!



Life was great. Meiling had a job she enjoyed in Marketing and Design, and couldn't imagine leaving her homeland, Taiwan. But when her son wanted to study Computer Science in far-away Houston, Texas, Meiling didn't hesitate. She and her husband packed two suitcases and came with their only son to Houston, to help make his dreams come true.

Meiling wanted to jump right in and become part of her new homeland, but there was one big hitch.

"I could not speak English. My husband had to help me call the Bay Area office to sign up for ESL classes."

Imagine the isolation. Meiling was used to having a circle of friends and colleagues; going confidently about her day; living life to the fullest. Now she felt helpless and always nervous. There was no chance of getting back into the work she loved. It was hard to even find friends.

After a three-month wait, Meiling finally got the call that a volunteer tutor had been found and she could start English classes. You can just imagine her feelings:

“I was so happy when they called! I like my classes here because they challenge me to speak English. We read a lot in my classes too.  I get amazed at myself because I didn’t think I could read much in English but I can.  I am very happy here with my English classes. I always tell people about ESL classes at Literacy Advance Bay Area.”

Meiling has set herself the goal of finding a job in Marketing and Design, like she had in Taiwan. Her English isn't quite ready for that yet, but she's determined to make it happen.

And determination runs in the family. Just as her son works two jobs, determined to pay his way through college, Meiling is focused on her goal of better English, then a job. She regularly watches YouTube videos at home, both to practice her language skills but also to keep up on all the design trends from New York and other style centers. And she's also a volunteer!

"I like that you can volunteer here, it is so nice! I volunteer at my church and once I could even help with designing the layout of some new furniture." 

All her efforts aren't going unnoticed:

"My son invites me to go eat at restaurants with him and his friends and we all speak English. I can read and understand road signs too now. And one time, I had to talk to a man at the store and I was able to speak to him for 10 minutes only in English! I am not scared anymore!"

Now, Meiling's feeling positive about the future:

“This year has been amazing! I love to create and learn and that is what I am doing. I’m so lucky to have found this organization!”


Meiling's story is a common one. So many newcomers have a lot to offer the United States - skills, expertise, enthusiasm, drive - and lack just a few elements, like workplace-ready English, to be able to give back. Your support ensures that these newcomers get the boost they need, to make their way forward with confidence. Please give today, to make more classes happen and make the wait shorter for the next new arrival!

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