August 11, 2023

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Classes through Catholic Charities help empower Hispanic woman

David Bethuram

Education comes in many shapes and sizes.

From learning the alphabet in kindergarten to filing taxes as an adult, educational challenges are encountered throughout one’s lifetime.

For many newcomers to the United States, this challenge is learning to speak English. It is difficult to seek out assistance as an adult, especially when resources and a command of the English language are limited.

This is how Camila felt when her family moved to Indiana where her husband found a respectable job. With perseverance and a good attitude, Camila was able to find work as a caretaker and a house cleaner. She and her husband learned enough English to get by with help from their children who learned to speak English fluently at school.

However, she was frustrated with relying on her children to help communicate with doctors and their teachers. She wanted to take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes but wasn’t sure where to begin. In the past, she had been embarrassed and discouraged when her English was misunderstood. “I would just become quiet and give up,” Camila admitted. A friend mentioned she was taking ESL classes through Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities has a well-designed ESL program that fosters English language acquisition, but not at the expense of an adult student’s native language. Researchers have studied the role of bilingualism and biculturalism as assets in positive psychology and concluded that the positive factors include personal identity, family and community connections, academic achievement and future employment opportunities.

Camila’s husband was reluctant. He thought the classes were too far from their home and felt her English was good enough. However, she was eager to become independent, so she began to attend bi-weekly classes. “It wasn’t easy,” Camila admitted.

She was overwhelmed with information in her first few classes, but worked hard in class and began to feel more confident and comfortable speaking English.

“I know my English is not perfect,” Camila said, “but I could talk to anyone, and I wouldn’t feel nervous.”

While taking classes, Camila encountered a situation where her ESL lessons became applicable to her daily life. Her family had been renting a home for nearly seven years, and maintenance issues arose with several appliances. She mentioned them to her landlord but felt that she was being ignored. Months passed, and the issues began to pile up.

She told her ESL teacher about the problem, who encouraged Camila to write a formal letter to her landlord. In her letter, Camila explained her frustration and warned the landlord that she would send the letter to the city if the problems were not resolved. Three days after the landlord received the letter, all the maintenance issues were fixed.

“It was incredible,” Camila said, “I didn’t know a simple letter could do so much. Our relationship with the landlord is getting better.”

Camila’s husband is very proud of her and now encourages her education. “He knows when my classes are,” she said, “and he says, ‘you better hurry, you can’t miss class!’ ”

She feels empowered to pursue bigger goals. “My next step is to get better at using the computer so I can take GED classes,” Camila said. “Before ESL classes, I was too afraid to do anything. Now I can do everything.”

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. You can contact him at †

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