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Student Success Spotlights - 2018

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“I lost that opportunity. But I will be prepared for the next one.”

Marisol had been overjoyed to be offered a job at her children’s school – her dedication as a parent volunteer had been noticed by the principal. But that joy quickly turned to trepidation, and then dismay.

“I didn’t speak English well enough. I knew I couldn’t take the job.” A phone call with the superintendent only confirmed that fear. “She said the meetings would be all in English. I knew I couldn’t do it.”

Asked how that felt, Marisol reflects for a moment, then says quietly, “It felt really bad.”

You can prepare a parent for their chance at success - when you make a gift to Literacy Advance today.

Not being qualified for a straightforward job was certainly an unfamiliar feeling for Marisol. After a childhood in a poor village in Mexico, she had made her own success, earning a medical degree and starting a rewarding career as a medical practitioner. She was dedicated and focused, working 7 days a week as the head of a team.

But after marriage, a move to Houston, and two children, life changed – radically. As a new parent, Marisol was anxious that her children speak English well, and have a good start in life. But she was figuring out her new life in the U.S. herself, and felt ill-prepared to guide them. Soon, she was floundering.

“The best help we can give our kids is to be an example,” says Marisol today. But she knew that her shaky English and inability to continue her career wasn’t the example she wanted to set. As her children grew older, and homework started coming home, she found herself out of her depth, anxious, and doubting herself.

Marisol resolved to change her life’s path and to open new possibilities for her children. She registered at Literacy Advance, and immediately loved her English classes. She deeply appreciated how practical the content was, and how her dedicated volunteer tutor worked to provide relevant, motivating lessons. She threw herself into practicing school-focused language and learning about the U.S. school system.

“My class at Literacy Advance helped so much. Now, when my kids’ teachers send us homeworks, instructions, I can read the entire thing in English and look for the information I need.” With growing confidence, Marisol signed up at her local library, and says she always has English books in the house now, reading regularly with her children.

Marisol’s success would not be possible without caring friends just like you. There are hundreds more parents at Literacy Advance, striving to make a new future for themselves and their families. Each has their own unique story - and each needs your support. Please, make a gift today to open new opportunities for one of these families.

After some years out of the workforce, and with family finances strained, it became more and more urgent that Marisol find a job. But, she says, “I had a lot of fear. I was scared of speaking in English and that people would not understand me.” Marisol met with the Literacy Advance Transition staff to get connected to vocational classes at partner agencies in Houston. She eagerly joined a Literacy Advance pilot of distance-learning software, which gave her the opportunity to learn language specific to the medical field, at her own pace at home.

Fast forward, and Marisol’s now successfully completed courses in nursing, Phlebotomy, and Medical Terminology – and she’s working on EKG. The community center where she takes those classes works hand-in-hand with some of the big Houston hospitals and will hold interviews with new graduates in September – when, says Marisol with a smile and new-found certainty: “I will graduate, and get a job.”

“This is the land of opportunity, and you have to be prepared when the opportunity comes. I was not prepared before, but I am prepared now.”

We cannot continue to open opportunities without your help.

Please give today.

We thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, that you care enough to stand by one of your neighbors as they make themselves and their family ready for their opportunity to thrive.

With gratitude,

melanie fisk robin tooms

Melanie Fisk, MSW, MBA
Chief Executive Officer

 Robin Tooms
Board President





 P.S. Parents and job-seekers reach out to us with hope - yearning to make a change and to set their families on a new and brighter path. And your contribution will make that hope real, paving the way to a future full of promise. Thanks to you, these eagerly waiting families will get what they need to flourish. Please send your most generous gift today, to help more families prepare for the bright opportunities ahead. Thank you, thank you!


Why we urgently need your help

Donors like you are a lifeline for our students. More than a million adults across Houston can’t effectively communicate in English, a crucial lack of skills that ripples out insidiously to affect every aspect of their lives.

Not only does low literacy limit a person’s ability to get and keep a job and to reach their own potential, its heavy weight is also felt on the next generation. Parents are a child’s first teacher and low literacy can repeat itself through generations of families.

When you give to Literacy Advance, you’re part of the solution. Our specialized classes give students the opportunity to focus on the language they need RIGHT NOW.

As of today, we’ve got three new parent-focused English classes on the schedule, using specialized curriculum and tailored to the needs of caregivers with kids in the Houston school system.

If nothing changes, those classes will help 25 families by the end of this year. That’s great, but it leaves more than 300 still on the waitlist - with more registering for classes every day. Your help today will supply tutor recruitment, training, and ongoing support, along with the specialized curriculum and supplementary materials that those waiting parents need.

Will you provide this crucial help to a Houston family today?


We have a special student success story for April, which is Volunteer Appreciation Month. Student Tom wrote this letter to his tutor, Ahmed, completely unsolicited. We asked him if we could share it with you, and he graciously said that we could. 
Volunteers, see how you change lives!

To my dear tutor at Literacy Advance:

If I had not had you as my tutor in 2017, my career would be incredibly different. I am not saying it would be bad - but you improved my speaking, reading and writing. What I can, which I never thought possible, is speak with potential employers confidently and fluently in English. You took me as a beginner in the language and helped talking with my boss without any hesitation.

Student Tom, left, practices job interview skills with volunteer tutor Ahmed, right, in 2017.

It is important to me that all of you know how important you really are. I diligently tried to find help with my English. You and the Literacy Advance of Houston team have taken part in helping me in progressing. What does one say when thank you can’t express the way truly feel?

Before going to bed I read an article as you advised. I am not sure if anyone has ever told you the impact you have made in my life, and how much you are truly appreciated for all you do. I want to take this opportunity to share with you my accomplishments starting this program.

I am so happy because Literacy Advance is a nice place to learn my second language. Everyone is very nice and kind-hearted. Although I was trying to keep my place there, I know there are a lot of people waiting for a chance to take a class since room limited. Now I practice English at home by watching TV and DVD while cooking or exercising.

Finally, I want to say thank you to Literacy Advance and especially to my tutor, Ahmed, for his valuable time and patience, and everything he does for the other students and me. There are still a lot of people that need help to learn English and I hope they will be as lucky as I am.

Sincerely yours,



In 2017, 257 Literacy Advance volunteer tutors gave 18,801 hours to their classes. That time is valued at a whopping $453,856 by the Independent Sector! Every dollar you give to Literacy Advance is magnified by the generous gift of time by our hundreds of volunteers.

Please give today - and know that the value of your donation will be increased by a wonderful volunteer's time and expertise. THANK YOU!

Student Hasan, left, speaks during a class exercise while her tutor Ann looks on


Hanan is no stranger to difficulty – or to resilience.

Forced to leave her homeland of Iraq because of, as she calmly explains, “the war and bombs”, she’s learned to be strong through two moves, the first to Turkey, and most recently to Houston. She’s now settled here with her husband of 20 years and her three children, and she says she loves her new city.

But the need for resilience has continued here too. Hanan’s youngest son is sick with a chronic kidney condition and is regularly hospitalized. Hanan’s first language is Arabic, and when she moved to Turkey she taught herself Turkish by talking with a friend on the phone – but now her need for English is urgent.

She needs to talk to her son’s doctors and caregivers, help him navigate school when he’s frequently absent, and she wants to join her husband in the U.S. workforce so that she can help support her family, both here in Texas and those she left behind in Iraq.

And her English, when she first arrived, was extremely basic.

“Before, just hello, good morning, how are you, was no good.”

When she first came to the United States, Hanan’s English language skills were rudimentary, to say the least. She needed a friend with her at all times to translate and was constantly anxious, not knowing how to help her son get the care he needed or understand the details about how to care for him at home. So she joined a Literacy Advance English class.

At first, Hanan didn’t make a lot of progress in class. She was too distracted and too stressed; her son was sick, she was learning to navigate a new and foreign place, and couldn’t concentrate well. But she stuck with it – and found her progress getting faster. She is grateful to her tutor, Ann, for her patience and care, and speaks animatedly of others noticing her improved conversation skills.

“Doctor say, ‘Hanan, good English’. And [my son’s] teacher say, ‘Hanan, English better’.”

Now, Hanan can talk with her son’s medical carers on the phone, including while he’s in the hospital, as he needs to be for 5 days out of every month. She can text in English, and talk to her son’s teacher and help him stay up to date with his education.

The doctors have noticed her improved English and with it has come increased confidence – the circle of learning in action!

For the future – Hanan isn’t sure. She very much wants to work, but not while her son is so sick. So she’s sticking with English class for now, so that she’ll be ready for a job when the time is right. When asked what job she wants, Hanan says:

“Anything. Any job. I just want make money for my family. I will do anything.”


We can do so much more because of you. Every gift matters, especially yours, as we work every day to ensure a brighter future for everyone in our community. 

Please give today and help one more family!

Thank you. Together, we’re able to do so much more.



It's a common myth: That refugees have little to offer and need a lot of support. Well, there's a grain of truth in it - any one of us would need some support to start over in a new country, especially if we didn't know the language.

But just as would be true for you if you were forced to flee to another country, refugees often have a wealth of experience and skills, sometimes highly technical, and always have much to offer their new homelands. And study after study confirms that the economic benefits of settling refugees in a community outweigh the costs of doing so.

All of this is true for Vanessa. A highly experienced professional, with specialized work experience in pediatric oncology, Vanessa fled Venezuela with her husband and new baby when violence and scarcity threatened them all. Arriving with asylum status in Houston, this tiny family wanted nothing more than to get established and turn this strange new place into home.

Her husband was able to find a job fairly quickly, but Vanessa's English was at the Low Beginner level. There was no way she could work in even an entry-level job, let alone use her medical skills. And without a second income (and far from family), childcare for her 3-month-old was impossible. She was caught in a vicious circle.

Vanessa registered for classes at Literacy Advance but knew she couldn't come regularly. She made an appointment with Diana, the Literacy Advance Transition coach, to talk through her options. Vanessa had two clear goals:

1. To get her driver's license;
2. To improve her English enough to get a job.

Vanessa uses Burlington English at home, using a specialized headset, while her baby naps

Among other referrals to community services and partner agencies, Diana recommended that Vanessa join a Literacy Advance pilot of Burlington English, online software for learning English. The pilot was made possible by funding from United Way THRIVE, and was designed for exactly this scenario - for people who wanted to practice English but couldn't commit to the regular schedule of an in-person class.

Well, this turned out to be exactly what she needed. 

"Burlington English is such a good opportunity for me!  I can study English at home and I am learning a lot. For the first time, I went to the bank and spoke to the teller in English. My husband was not there to help me, but I was able to do everything in English. I know that my English is not perfect but the lady at the bank said she could understand me." 

With some successes under her belt, Vanessa's confidence grew - and she was more willing to try new scenarios and situations where she would have to speak English.

"It was so hard when I didn’t understand English and couldn’t speak to people. Now I can go to the store and ask for sizes and things I need to buy."

Her new-found confidence and English skills came just at the right time:

"My baby was sick, but I was able to talk to the doctor in English. I told the nurse my baby was sick and he was not eating. I did all that in English and they understood me!"

In just a few short months, Vanessa has accomplished the first of her two goals - and not only did she pass her driver's license test, she did so in English.

"I learned to drive here in Houston, and I passed my driving test! I have my driver's license now, and I feel so proud of myself. When I took my driving test, I was afraid I would not understand the woman from the DPS. I could not look at her while I was driving for the test. It was a lot of pressure but I did it. I passed my driving test in English!"

Vanessa has her second goal firmly in her sights now. She's using the feature within Burlington English that helps users with industry-specific language, and she's studying all the English terms for the medical procedures she's already familiar with. We know it won't be long until she achieves her second goal, too.


When you give to Literacy Advance, your support goes a long way. Not only do you provide classes and opportunities for students like Vanessa, you're underpinning the success of whole families. Vanessa will not only soon join the Houston workforce - and help kids with cancer to get better! - your investment in her helps her be a better, more confident mom.

Will you give today and support a family like Vanessa's? Thank you for being the hero they need!

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