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Gloria Bridges credits Fluvanna’s adult education program with helping her become a U.S. citizen. Photo by Kristin SanckenIn the rolling hills of central Fluvanna county lays a typical brick ranch house. But walk inside its doors and the brightly colored walls, parquet floors and wicker furniture transport you to Gloria Bridges’ native hometown of Cartagena, Colombia.
Bridges’ story is one told many times throughout the Untied States. American boy and Latin girl fall in love, get married and move back stateside for better opportunities for their children. Only Bridges never expected for so many opportunities to be afforded to her as well.
On July 9, 2012 Gloria Bridges was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, and she credits Fluvanna’s adult education program, Families Learning Together, for her and her family’s success. Worrisome to the Bridges family, Families Learning Together is one of the many programs cut during the ongoing Fluvanna County budget crisis.
The Bridges moved to Charlottesville when Gloria’s husband, Travis, got a job working in the bilingual auto claims department at State Farm Insurance. He had picked up Spanish during his time in the Army stationed in Panama, and after discharge met Gloria on a trip through Colombia.
They were renting a home in Lake Monticello when their oldest daughter, Samantha, entered kindergarten in 2005. A flyer came home advertising the Families Learning Together program, which taught English as a Second Language (ESL). Although Gloria had taken university level English classes in Colombia, she still struggled. Now that her daughter was in school, she decided to go back too.
Over 300 Fluvanna families have been served in the 11 years that Families Learning Together has been in existence. The program was designed to support and encourage parents in their educational goals while simultaneously enhancing their children’s school success.
“The parents who come to us are interested in learning to speak English or wanting to improve basic skills or they want to pursue earning their GED credentials,” said Mary Ott, program coordinator.
It was just what Gloria needed.
“They provided transportation and childcare. They made it easy for me to enroll in the program,” said Gloria. “It was difficult to do anything else, because we only had one car.”
In Colombia, Gloria was highly educated with a private university degree. She held respected jobs as a police inspector and then a supervisor of community services for her area. But in the United States she couldn’t get a job without speaking better English.
“The problem in Cartagena is the accent. You can listen to English all you want in the classroom, but you don’t hear it outside of the classroom,” said Gloria. “I could read English, but my ears and my accent were still a problem.”
Families Learning Together not only improved Gloria’s English, but they helped her navigate the American school system for her daughter, Samantha. Samantha, who is now 12 years old, remembers walking into her first day of kindergarten at Central Elementary only speaking Spanish.
“At first is was very confusing because I had no idea what was going on. I followed what everyone else did,” said Samantha.
The adult education teachers at Families Learning Together drove Gloria to her daughter’s classroom so she could talk to Samantha’s teachers and help her cope.
“They did so much for me and for my children,” said Gloria. “Because I didn’t have transportation it was difficult for me to do that on my own. It’s more than we were expecting someone to help.”
Families Learning Together taught Gloria and her children how to use the local library system and how to interpret and respond to report cards. Now, Samantha is a straight A student, as are her younger two siblings, Jay and Juliette.
“It helped me to be a momma and be in charge of the education of my children,” said Gloria. “Sometimes you need someone to say, ‘you’re a momma. You have to pay attention to what is happening with your kids.’”
Although Samantha had no idea how much effort her mom was making to help her be successful in school, Samantha remembers that the turning point for her was when her mom entered Families Learning Together.
“It was life changing,” said Samantha of Families Learning Together. “It kind of stabilized our whole family.”
After Gloria’s English improved, she knew she had to apply for her citizenship so she could stay in the same country as her husband and three children. But she was terrified of the process, particularly of the final interview, which quizzes you on American history facts in English.
Gayle von Keyserling, the Director of Adult Literacy, walked her through the entire process.
“We did it like a family, together. She didn’t leave me alone. She practiced with me how to pronounce each word and answer each question in the civics book. I never expected a teacher to provide that much support,” said Gloria. “It was a big process. It took one year of preparation.”
On the day of the interview in Fairfax, Gloria was prepared. She carried in a thick file of documentation, some of which were difficult to procure, like her Colombian birth certificate professionally translated into English and the last 12 years of tax returns. The two people ahead of her had been denied citizenship, one for not passing the civics test and the other for not having the proper documentation. Gloria’s stomach churned as she entered the room for her interview.
She repeated some of the hardest answers to herself in her head – 425 congressmen in the U.S. House.
“It was not easy,” said Gloria. “Mostly because they don’t talk to you like it’s a test. It’s more like, you are my friend, let’s talk.”
Gloria didn’t let her guard down. When the gentleman with the State Department casually asked her if she had ever voted, she quickly replied, “no sir, I cannot vote because I am not a citizen here.”
Gloria passed the citizenship test with flying colors, and would cast her first ballot in the 2012 Presidential race. She has had other successes, to which she credits to Families Learning Together.
A few weeks ago she accepted a job working for Region 10 as a bilingual probation officer, reentering her dream career in social services.
“I was surprised when they said, ‘okay, you’re hired.’ I said, ‘Wow! Wow! I did it! People can understand me!” said Gloria.
With Fluvanna County budget cuts, Bridges worries that other families won’t have the same level of opportunity she did. As of last year, Families Learning Together is no longer a part of the Fluvanna County Public Schools budget. They survive on grants from Dollar General, BAMA Works Fund and the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation. Their classrooms, in the basement of the Palmyra school building, are in kind donations from the Fluvanna school system.
“We don’t really have a budget. We’re running on the grants we can get,” said Ott. “Because of what has happened, we are exploring becoming a non-profit. That will make us eligible to apply for a whole lot more grants.”
Von Keyserling and Ott are only being paid for part-time work, but are volunteering full-time hours to serve the 30 families who come through their program each year. The money they used to use for transportation and childcare is also limited.
“Now that the program is getting cut, our worry is that we don’t want to lose this program. We want to keep it in the community for other families to be able to do what we’re doing,” said Gloria. “I don’t think I would have gotten my citizenship if Ms. Gayle had not supported me. It’s something so important to us.”
To advocate for funding dedicated to Families Learning Together, call your Board of Supervisors representative. To donate to the Families Learning Together program, tax-exempt donations may be sent in care of the Fluvanna Education Foundation, P.O. Box 224, Palmyra, VA 22963. Or visit http://www.fluvannaeducationfoundation.org/