er repeated requests from Hispanic residents wanting to learn English, Yirah Marrero decided to offer free classes in "Survival English," which are drawing 20 people a week.
"I want to learn English for the benefit of myself and my family, and for at work if we have an emergency," said Antonio Suarez during the Jan. 22 class.
Marrero is the Spanish Youth Coordinator for Jefferson County Library and also represents the library during Kids First visits to local neighborhoods. The Kids First program is a collection of law enforcement, health, library, fire department, and other representatives who make monthly visits to lower income neighborhoods to let people know what help is available to them through their agencies.
"We ask people what their needs are and people kept telling us they wanted to know English, especially moms who stay home while their husbands are at work," Marrero said.
Marrero had heard the same thing from mothers bringing their children to Spanish Storytime at the library, and used their input to design a basic Survival English class. The best time for the class, they told her, was when their kids were in school, so she planned the seven-week class for 1:30 p.m., Tuesdays in the Library Annex. Childcare was also provided for younger children.
Several people said they had tried to get into COCC or COIC English classes, but were told there was a long waiting list.
The Madras COCC office reported all its classes are currently full with 15 enrolled in its daytime "Even Start" English and parenting class, and 40 students in the two evening English classes.
Because Jefferson County Library and Kids First agreed to sponsor the classes, Marrero was able to offer them for free to the public.
The only advertisement was by word of mouth and flyers put up around town, but up to 20 students have shown up for classes as the word has spread.
At last Tuesday's class the topic was "Emergencia 911" (Emergency 911) and an Madras Police Office Tanner Stanfill was the guest speaker outlining the most important phrases people should know.
"Good afternoon, how are you?" Marrero asked, beginning the session with a review of past words.
"Fine, thank you," twenty voices responded in unison. Assisting with the class was Marrero's father Luis Armstrong, a retired court translator.
For quick reference, Marrero has color-coded class worksheets by topic, and this week's worksheet was red for emergency.
The class practiced saying "Help!" "My address is ...," and words to describe the problem.
Certain words, like breathing, bleeding, stomach, daughter, and unconscious, were tongue twisters for the group and had to be practiced repeatedly.
With Marrero interpreting, Officer Stanfill told the class about the importance of time in responding to an emergency situation.
"If you can state your emergency need (fire, ambulance, police) it will make the response faster than if the officer has to come first to see what the problem is," he said.
Martha Mendez said English was a problem once when she fainted and hurt her shoulder and somebody else had to call 911 for her.
"I had to go in a helicopter and had to say where it hurt and try to describe it," she related.
The 911 service does have a language line with an interpreter, but again, that takes more time, Stanfill said.
Other students spoke about why they are attending the Survival English class.
"We live in the U.S. and we should be able to communicate well. It's very useful," said Carmen Lopez.
Margarita Ruiz said, "I continue to come because there are daily, common words I need and every time I learn more."
The classes have eased the minds of some students. "When I travel alone with my child I was concerned I may not be able to communicate," Azucena Hernandez said, and then joked, "And when I get a ticket I'll be able to defend myself!"
Other classes will cover vocabulary for visiting the doctor, post office, filling out job applications, and everyday words such as dates, times, polite greetings, and how to say "I don't speak much English."
Marrero will repeat her Survival English class, and Armstrong is interested in teaching more advanced classes, especially on American laws. "The laws in Mexico are different than they are here," he noted.
The students are eager to learn and as people invite their friends, new faces are seen every time she holds class, Marrero said.
There is a misconception in the Madras community that Hispanics don't want to learn English, she observed.
"That is so wrong. They do want to learn English, but are so afraid of starting. They don't know how to start and are shy," she said, noting she purposely uses humor in class to help students relax and enjoy learning.
Reminding them of the old Spanish saying "Repetition is the mother of retention" Marrero tells her students to practice a lot by repeating words they hear on TV or by reading magazines outloud. She tells them not to be offended when they get corrected, and to not give up.
Marrero obviously enjoys teaching and her attitude is picked up by the class. "The first class, when I saw their spirit and that they all really wanted to learn, I was excited. It's fun when I see their enthusiasm," Marrero said.