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From Mexico City to a bus-turned-classroom in Hodgkins

Published: Monday, May 20, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST
Caption
(By Alex Ruppenthal - aruppenthal@shawmedia.com)
Imelda Bieniek of Countryside points to a page in her workbook while learning English with tutor Mary Holland. Bieniek has visited the School on Wheels almost every week for the past 20 years to learn English.

HODGKINS – Like the woman in the book she now can read, Imelda Bieniek pictured something different than where she wound up.

Bieniek shared the story of Amelia, a woman from Mexico who moved to California expecting a house on the ocean and palm trees. In reality, the Desert Palms apartment complex where her brother lives isn’t as nice as it sounded.

Amelia sleeps on a couch in the dumpy, windowless apartment and finds a job as a maid, which she doesn’t like at first. But she works hard and gets promoted to a job she enjoys. Life in her new home works out.

Bieniek has spent the past 20 years learning English so that she can read this story, which also is her own. Bieniek, 44, moved to Chicago from Mexico City in 1993, landing in a small apartment at 26th Street and Ridgewood Avenue on Chicago’s far southwest side. She expected a nice house with a yard and trees – like in the pictures her brother had sent her – but he since had moved. She found that there was almost no grass and noticed nearby walls were filled with graffiti from the city’s gangs, so she moved to Countryside.

“It’s hard when you come from Mexico and you think everything is going to be good,” Bieniek said.

In the western suburbs, Bieniek enjoyed the more open (and more green) space and felt safe walking around the block. She also found School on Wheels, an adult mobile literacy program started in 1993 by Sister Marybeth McDermott of the Congregation of St. Joseph. Aside from a two-year return to Mexico and the occasional sick day, Bieniek has learned English on the program’s bus every week for the past 20 years, working her way up to the 96-page novel about Amelia, which she read a few months ago.

Bieniek didn’t know English when she moved to the U.S. Her first job was as a housekeeper at the Countryside Holiday Inn, which didn’t require her to speak much English.

“It’s not so easy when you’re looking for a job and they ask you if you speak English,” she said.

As her English improved, so did her jobs. She worked at Hinsdale Hospital and La Grange Memorial Hospital in food services and in the maternity ward and nursery. She likes being around children, and she wants to continue working at a hospital once her 2-year-old daughter, Jennifer, is older.

Like Bieniek, about 85 percent of School on Wheels’ students are native Spanish speakers. The program has about 450 active students and 300 volunteer tutors who meet once a week on a bus-turned-classroom that stops in seven west suburban towns. In Hodgkins, the bus parks next to the Target at 9250 Joliet Road, near an apartment complex on Lenzi Avenue where many of the students live. The tutoring is free – students have to buy their books only.

For students like Bieniek, learning English is a must for two reasons: finding a job and helping their kids with homework.

“Sister Marybeth, she always told me, ‘You live in this country. You have to speak English,’” Bieniek said.

In 2008, McDermott retired from running the organization, which now is headed by Debbie Bradt. Bradt’s husband, Mike, tutors three times a week. Two of his students are bus drivers for Nazareth Academy who also take turns driving the School on Wheels bus. For them, Bradt picked out a book about a taxi driver who moved to the U.S.

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