Native Salvadoran Oscar Moreno is a newcomer to the English language, but a simple poem he wrote in gratitude to Progreso Literacy and Citizenship Center speaks volumes.
“My school is small, but it has the most important—“TEACHERS” who sacrifice their time for us to learn your language,” wrote Moreno, a student in Progreso’s intermediate English class.
Progreso, which recently changed its name from Progreso Hispano to reflect a growing number of clients from all corners of the world, served about 380 local immigrants last year, 12 of whom have already become U.S. citizens. Born out of the Hispanic ministry of Good Shepherd Catholic Church, Progreso was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001 in Mount Vernon. Since then, the organization’s mission has expanded to serve all local residents yearning to learn English.
“Route 1 has really changed in the last few years, so we felt that Progreso has really evolved into a center for all immigrants, and we always were, but we’re seeing more of the Middle Eastern community, and the African community,” said Executive Director Cristina Schoendorf.
Jeri Fields, vice chairwoman on Progreso’s board of directors, said it’s been a joy to watch immigrants gain citizenship with Progreso’s help, or see them learn a new language.
“When the name was Progreso Hispano, it implied it was primarily for the Latino community, and in reality there are many immigrants in this area,” she said. “So changing it to the new name emphasized we are involved with literacy, emphasized we are involved with people gaining their citizenship, not just from the Latino community.”
When Schoendorf came to the agency six years ago, it had only five volunteer English teachers. Today, the number has swelled to 16. Progreso provides three levels of English instruction and pre-literacy skills for clients who are illiterate in their native language. The organization is funded through private donations, the faith community, grants and Fairfax County and has an annual budget of $150,000.
The citizenship course involves preparing clients for the U.S. citizenship test. The instructors focus on the 100 questions that will be asked on the test and the necessary oral language skills to pass.
Former students who have passed the test drop by the class to share their experience with taking the test and ease clients’ fears. Citizen course teachers include a federal judge, a government teacher and a retired government worker.
Most volunteers aren’t teachers by trade, Schoendorf said.
“A lot of them are retired [from the] government, military,” she said. “I have retired attorneys, teachers.
“I think that what’s great about the D.C. area is that you have so many people who have lived overseas, in whatever capacity—military, government. So they’re very comfortable with diversity, and so they really have an understanding of culture and being with people from around the world, because it’s typical that you walk into our class and you see people from Central America, South America, Africa, the Middle East—so they’re very comfortable in that setting.”
Often, a police officer will drop by classes to talk to clients and help them address any public safety concerns they may have. Representatives from other social services agencies also come by to explain what resources are available in the area.
Caroline McCormack of Mount Vernon, who has taught two English classes at Progreso, said one group was made up of mostly Moroccan men with advanced degrees, and the second was mostly Pakistani women who had been to college. A retired middle school teacher, the job was right up her alley.
“I met wonderful people from different parts of the world that I never would have met before, and in this country there’s a certain amount of anxiety with Muslims, and I didn’t feel that all,” she said. “Their needs and desires were exactly the same as mine.”
For many immigrants, Progreso provides an entryway into a new social world, Schoendorf said.
“They all come to America for the same dream,” she said. “They may speak a different language, or they may worship different, but they’re here for the same goals. And they get to know each other, and it’s been really positive.”
For more information on volunteering, visit Progeso’s website or call 703-799-8830.