Language class teaches English to immigrants

Program helps
residents prepare for
school, compete for jobs

Staff Writer

Program helps
residents prepare for
school, compete for jobs
Staff Writer

LAKEWOOD — For some hopeful immigrants, the beckoning lights of Lakewood shine just as brightly as the beacon held high by the Statue of Liberty, America’s icon of freedom.

A select group of these residents came one step closer to realizing their dreams of a new life by graduating from the township’s English as a Second Language program on Dec. 10 at the Clifton Avenue School.

"A total of 305 students registered for the course in September, but only 110 students graduated," said Ada Gonzalez, coordinator for the course. "It’s not about just graduating and getting a certificate. This wasn’t just a social club. It was to prepare [students] for better positions at work or just communicating in English, since that’s the main language right now."

Begun three years ago, the ESL program is funded by the Lakewood Development Corporation. The program’s director is Rabbi Moshe Z. Weisberg, but it was Gonzalez who conceived the idea for it. In September 2001, she first approached Weisberg, her director at Job Link, for help in getting her inspiration off the ground. Their collaboration has benefited many of Lakewood’s immigrant residents.

The ESL program is open to non-English speaking residents of all backgrounds who qualify for the course. Gonzalez said even students who did not graduate could still achieve their goal of fluency in English.

"A few could only come on Mondays, so they didn’t learn as much, but they will continue to take the course," Gonzalez said. "They’re just not ready yet, but the ones that graduated came at least four times a week and the teachers could notice a big difference from when they started."

The students proudly demonstrated their individual levels of competency in the language of their adopted country at graduation ceremonies attended by state Sen. Robert W. Singer, Mayor Marta Harrison and Township Committeeman-elect Meir Lichtenstein. Also attending were Weisberg, Gonzalez and the program’s instructors.

At the beginning of the graduation exercise, Gonzalez asked the graduation candidates to recite the pledge of allegiance.

"You make me proud!" Gonzalez exclaimed. "As you learn the language [here], you can begin to attend municipal meetings by going up to the mike" and addressing the Township Committee in English.

Civic responsibility was only one of the motivating reasons for taking the course, according to several graduates who spoke afterward.

Jacob Martinez, 35, has a university degree in administration that he earned in his native country of Mexico. He hopes to work in the same field in the United States.

"English is very important in Mexico, as well as all over the world," he said.

Martinez is currently employed at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, but he is an intermediate student in the ESL program.

"The tenses are the most difficult," he said.

No less ambitious is Gustavo Cuellar, 21, also from Mexico. Cuellar, who has lived in the United States for the past two years, comes from a family of 10 brothers and four sisters. He said his father earned a meager existence by working as a laborer in the agricultural fields of Mexico. Determined to seek a better future for himself, Cuellar hopes to enroll in computer programming at Ocean County College in Toms River once he has mastered English.

Some immigrants’ aspirations are no less noble, even if their professional goals are more modest.

Gerardo de la Cruz, 17, said he came to the United States two years ago. He currently works in construction, but said in Spanish that he realized English proficiency was the key to better pay.

Before he could discuss his plans for the future, his name was called to receive his certificate. When he returned to his seat at one of the many cafeteria tables decorated with brightly colored balloons, he displayed the document with his name on it for all his friends to see.

As each student took his or her turn at receiving a certificate of graduation and thanking teachers and program administrators for making their accomplishment possible, classmates enthusiastically applauded them. When the last certificate was handed out, Gonzalez addressed the graduates.

"We’ve been doing this for how long?" Gonzalez asked. "As the rabbi said, it’s like giving birth to a new child. OK, now we can all … party."

As a bubble-making machine created a festive atmosphere, the graduates and their guests dined on food and cake as dance music played in the background.

Katia Tellez, 27, who is originally from Mexico, came over to speak to her friends, where de la Cruz was seated.

Tellez, a factory machinist who has been living in Lakewood for 10 months, said she would like to contribute to the betterment of her community by using her intellect and not just her labor to make a living.

"I would like to become a lawyer with more study in English," Tellez said.When asked if she would like to specialize in immigration law, her friends laughed. Because many Mexicans come to the United States illegally, the reference to immigration law was an acknowledgement of the need for such services. However, the young woman shyly smiled and said, "Perhaps."

Not all Mexicans view English as merely the key to a better job. Florentino Melquiades, 41, has lived in the United States for the past year. He works as a busboy in a Mexican restaurant in Lakewood. With English proficiency, he felt he could more fully integrate into the greater Lakewood community.

"I would like to learn the language of the country in order to function well here," he said. "This program represents an opportunity to better myself so I can understand what I see on television or radio. It’s a gift."

In order to continue providing that gift, Gonzalez said the program relies on donations.

She said although the program receives its funding from the Lakewood Development Corporation and the Lakewood Industrial Board, corporate donors such as Wal-Mart in Howell, which donates $1,000 annually, and generous individual donors such as Dave Sickel, president of Pine Belt Chevrolet in Lakewood, help the program continue to expand. Gonzalez said the size of the donation is not important; all contributions to the program are welcome.

"Donations are always gratefully accepted," she said. "All checks, which are tax deductible, should be made out to Lakewood Community Service Corpor-ation, a nonprofit organization. There are so many things that are needed."