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Adult education students get lessons in democracy

By Marie P. Grady, Special to Reminder Publications Larry Bay has worked to help people find jobs or further their education for 30 years. In that time, he has never seen an economy as bad as this one. "It's horrible. People are suffering in ways that I've never seen," he said. So, when it came time for the students at HolyokeWorks to become involved in an issue as part of civic engagement lessons, there was one that overwhelmingly caught their attention: jobs. In this case an estimated 145 of them, all to come from a proposal to locate a Lowe's Home Improvement store in a city struggling to shed its ranking as No. 1 for per-capita poverty in the state of Massachusetts. Students soon learned from press accounts that there was opposition to a plan to rezone a Whiting Farms Road parcel to pave the way for the store. So, they got to work, making phone calls, sending letters and e-mails to city councilors. On Jan. 6, the City Council voted 11-4 to approve the zoning change. In the audience were 25 students from the Holyoke program that provides adult education, English as a Second Language lessons and job training. Many of the students are taking English as a Second Language classes while working one or two jobs all in the hope of finding a better future. Carmen Irizarry, a 22-year-old native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, is among them. She wrote at least two councilors who were opposed to the plan, pleading for approval. "We need more jobs in Holyoke because we have a lot of unemployment," she said. Irizarry, who travels to a full-time factory job in Hatfield each day amid taking courses, never heard back from them. But, she says, she still felt "good because I tried." So, did many other students. Civic participation is among lessons students get through state-funded language programs. Bay says they are not directed as to which opinions to voice but are encouraged to participate in the Democratic process. In an Advanced English as a Second Language class at the program, taught by Debbie Bottaro, students were eager to speak about their reasons for supporting the proposal. "We want to have the store here for jobs for us," said Oul Cham, a native of Cambodia who is just getting a chance to perfect her English now after years of raising her children and working. "It's an opportunity for people," says Eduardo Diodenet. Milagros Claudio, a native of San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, also is here to learn to communicate better, with her children, their teachers and the world. Many in job training programs here are learning to better speak the language for the first time after factory jobs they had for decades disappeared and moved overseas. While they come from many different areas of the world, students here don't have to be taught to help each other. When a 37-year-mother of a boy with a brain tumor recently lost one of her two jobs, the bad news got worse when a tenant of a duplex she scraped to own defaulted on the rent and trashed the apartment. Bay arranged a donation from Home Depot, and students are putting their skills to work to help her save her home. Opposition among some councilors to the Lowe's plan ranged from concerns about traffic congestion to the hope that a new manufacturing plant would materialize. Some students said they didn't hear back from them, but they did hear from the mayor. In a recent letter, Mayor Michael J. Sullivan praised the students for "raising their voices to give policy makers the first hand awareness of the need to grow jobs." Sarah Schmidt, a substitute teacher for the class, said their involvement put to shame long-time residents who have never seen the inside of a council chamber. For those who have never participated in the process, Oul Cham has a message, delivered in perfect English. "It's good to get involved." Marie P. Grady is liaison for the Literacy Works Project of the Hampden County Regional Employment Board. She can be reached at mgrady@rebhc.org.

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