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Immigrant finds self through English lessons

School on Wheels program offers free ESL classes

Published: Friday, July 25, 2014 11:42 a.m. CDT
Mary Ebad (left), originally from Egypt now of Woodridge, gets assistance with conversation from School on Wheels tutor Heather Hernandez in Woodridge on Monday. Erica
(Photo provided)
Olga Valdivia (center) after accepting the annual Sr. Marybeth McDermott ESL Success Award at the fifth annual Benefit for School and Tutors on Wheels. Valdivia is pictured with her husband, Juan Martin, two sons, Ashby and Chrits, and her longtime tutor, Arlene Smith.

BOLINGBROOK – When Olga Valdivia emigrated to the United States two decades ago, she envisioned a place she could safely raise her family, provide her boys with a strong education and enjoy the American freedoms not afforded to her in her home country of Mexico.

And while life in the states proved fruitful for her and her family, one barrier remained constant in her personal life, leaving her frustrated, confused and lacking relationships outside her of her husband and two sons – she couldn't speak English.

"My life was very frustrating," the 44-year-old Bolingbrook resident explained. "I couldn't go to the grocery store, I couldn't make appointments. When I visited my sons' school I couldn't communicate with the teacher, or even doctors. ... It was sad and terrible for me."

She dealt with the barrier for about 10 years. Then one day she approached an employee at Bolingbrook's Fountaindale Library with the little English she did know and inquired about English lessons.

The staffer pointed her to a flyer for School and Tutors on Wheels, an adult English literacy program that provides free one-on-one tutoring to low-income adults in DuPage and Cook counties. The program launched in 1993 through the Congregation of St. Joseph, a religious organization with a branch in La Grange Park.

Nine years later, Valdivia is the recipient of School and Tutors on Wheels' 2014 Success Award for her success in learning English as a second language.

"My life now, it has changed a lot. I feel like a new person," she said, calling the award a "great honor."

Valdivia, who earned her citizenship in 2013 and now works as a part-time translator at Adventist Bolingbrook Hospital, was quick to thank her tutors, specifically Arlene Smith, Valdivia's tutor through the years.

Smith, of Romeoville, began volunteering with the organization in 1996 after retiring from a job in real estate. She and Valdivia have become great friends through the years meeting weekly at the program's Woodridge locations at the Woodridge Resource Center and United Methodist Church.

"To watch Olga grow through the years was validation for me for teaching," Smith said. "She gave that gift back to me."

Smith has worked with dozens of students through the years. Valdivia was one of her finest, she said.

"Seeing her progress was wonderful. She was always so grateful to me, too, which made me feel good. I can't take too much credit, she was a great student.

"This is a woman who came here with nothing and now look where she's at."

Valdivia said Smith would even take time out of her vacations to provide English lessons over the phone.

"I am lucky to have her," Valdivia said. "She travels a lot and would go to Florida for months at a time, and she said we could do lessons by phone. She would send me homework by email and we would talk over the phone. It worked fine."

School and Tutors on Wheels provides a curriculum and textbooks to students and pairs them with a matching tutor. Both meet weekly for about an hour at one of the program's 17 locations throughout the western suburbs.

Many of the students are from Mexico, but Smith said she has taught students from Poland, Russia and Brazil as well. The curriculum is set up so volunteers do not need to know the student's language, she explained.

There are no requirements for prospective students, according to executive director Theresa Denton.

"The only requirement is that [the student] wants to learn how to read, write or speak English," Denton said.

Funding for STOW is made possible through grants from the Illinois State Library (ISL) and from the Congregation of St. Joseph Generous Promises Fund, as well as private donations, according to the organization's website.

Valdivia, who has plans to make the transition from student to tutor with STOW, hopes others like her build up the courage to learn English.

"When I see people in the stores or in the hospital and they don't know how to speak English, I ask them how long they've been here and say 20 or more years. I ask them why and they make an excuse. There are no excuses," she said.


How to get involved

To become a volunteer tutor or student at a School on Wheels site, contact program director Debbie Bradt at 708-354-9200, ext. 5060. 


More online

For more information on School and Tutors on Wheels, visit

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