FOX LAKE – Carmen Carbajal, 73, of Fox Lake, is affectionately known as “the grandmother of her people.”
For the past 11 years, she has taught ESL (English as a Second Language) to Hispanic students at Stanton Middle School in Fox Lake. Three years ago, she created a night course for their parents and family members.
“I really believe when you move to a country you have to learn the language. It is your obligation. I stress that [to my students],” said Carbajal, who’s made teaching English her life’s work, starting in Mexico City when she was just 17-years-old.
As a longtime volunteer at Mano a Mano Family Resource Center in Round Lake Park, Carbajal was touched by the number of adults who wanted to learn English but were wait-listed because there weren’t enough resources to serve everyone.
“I thought, the only way I can help my people without them having to wait is to do something in Fox Lake just for them,” she said.
Taking a leap
Carbajal enlisted the support of Stanton Middle School Principal Jeff Sefcik to introduce an adult program two nights a week, with the only cost to participants being a textbook. She called it LEAP — Learning English for Advancement and Progress.
“She does this out of the kindness of her heart,” said Sefcik, who started at Stanton Middle School the same year as Carbajal.
The LEAP program was first held at Stanton Middle School, then moved to Grant Community High School to accommodate more students. Carbajal credits Grant Spanish teacher Maureen Harker, Lotus Elementary Spanish teacher Connie Thomsen and retired Grant Spanish teacher Sue Thompson with helping to make the program a success.
Many of Carbajal’s adult students have children in the local schools. She has seen firsthand how challenging it can be when children are learning English and their Spanish-speaking parents are not.
“There is a gap between students and parents who don’t speak English. There is a tremendous lack of communication,” Carbajal said. “It’s important that parents can communicate with their children and the community. Without learning English, their world is small and they don’t learn the customs and ways of the country. They have to expand their enclosed circle.”
At a LEAP graduation ceremony on April 27, Carbajal’s adult students said they were grateful to her for helping them bridge that communication gap.
“I have a boy with special needs and when he goes to the doctor I want to be able to understand,” said Leticia Albiter, who has three children. “Now I can help my daughter with homework and read what the school sends home.”
Many of the adult students came into the LEAP program not speaking a word of English. Carbajal said it’s important for children to see their parents challenge themselves to learn something new.
Learning English was difficult at first for Modesta Martinez, but her children and Carbajal supported her all the way and she is now more confident.
“At first she was a little rough,” said her daughter, Elizabeth Fajardo, a Stanton Middle School eighth-grader whose first language is Spanish. “We speak English at home and I practice with her. She has me correct her when she’s wrong.”
By learning English, Fajardo said another world has opened up for her mother, including more job opportunities and new friends.
To the dismay of all her students, Carbajal is retiring to spend more time with her husband of 52 years, Tony, along with her three grown children and eight grandchildren.
“We thank her infinitely for all the time she has given us. We hope the district will continue supporting the teachers who want to continue this course so we can continue learning a little more,” said Maria Inés Herrera, reading from a letter in Spanish.
Carbajal said she will miss everyone tremendously and hopes they continue their learning. “Don’t stop here,” she told the graduates. “Knowledge is power and enthusiasm pulls the switch.”
In a word, Carbajal is “irreplaceable,” Sefick said. “She is a mom to this class and has been like a mom to me.”
LEAP will resume in August if there are volunteers to run the program.
In addition to having bilingual teachers for beginner and intermediate ESL, Carbajal would like to see the program offer an advanced class. Those interested can contact Sefcik at 847-973-4200.
April 2016 LEAP Graduates:
Petra Durán, Efrén Espino, Reyna Espino, Cristina Martinez, Modesta Martinez, Itzel Ortiz, Teresa Ramirez and Juanita Rodriguez.
Demetria Albiter, Elizabeth Albiter, Eréndida Albiter, Herlinda Albiter, Leticia Albiter, Maria Isabel Covarrubias, Navia Chairez and Jova López Dominguez.