Programs / Stimulating Economic Development ← Programs
Thirty-one years ago in 1986, Enriqueta Molina was living in her native El Salvador as the country erupted into civil war. Two of her siblings had already fled to the United States, and as her situation in El Salvador became more dangerous, she decided it was time to make the move as well. However, her move to her sister’s home in California was not a solution. While no longer in a battle zone, Molina found herself fighting other challenges.
“It was so hard,” she recalls. Molina, typically good natured and optimistic, became visibly discouraged when remembering the challenges she faced.
“My sister lived in a bad neighborhood,” says Molina. “The first thing I thought when I saw it was: ‘This is like my country.’ I didn’t think I was going to last in that place either.” After a few months, Molina moved across the country to live with her other sister in New York City and try her luck there.
For the next seven years, Molina cleaned houses, taking only a brief break when her oldest son was born in 1989. One of her biggest challenges and frustrations was mastering the English language. She felt she just couldn’t get a handle on it and knew that learning English was an important key to success in her new home.
“I studied English a little bit in El Salvador, but the pronunciation was so different here that I found it very hard,” she says.
In 1993, Molina was ready for a change and friends in Rhode Island often talked about how happy they were here. She decided to leave New York and relocate to Providence. She soon learned about an English as a Second Language (ESL) program offered through the Providence elementary school where her son attended.
“I thought it was a good idea, so I registered. My English still wasn’t very good, and it took two or three years to finish. But what I discovered in the process, was that when the teacher gave me the opportunity to help other students, I was very good with them,” she says.
It was at that point that a friend told Molina about Genesis Center in Providence.
Genesis Center offers a full-range of services to immigrants, refugees and low-income families out of its facility on the west side of Providence. They offer early child care, workforce development, education courses and supports geared to help individuals become successful and self-sufficient. Currently, the center implements two LISC programs designed to promote self-sufficiency, financial literacy and employment.
“Genesis Center has operated a LISC Financial Opportunity Center since 2011,” said Claudia Staniszewski, Program Officer at LISC Rhode Island. “LISC funds three centers in Rhode Island that help people improve their financial literacy, manage expenses and set long-term financial goals.”
Genesis Center also implements LISC’s Bridges to Career Opportunities program, where clients receiving services from the Financial Opportunity Center can get foundational literacy and math skills, as well as contextualized technical training. Clients are able to pursue needed industry-recognized credentials as well as complete an internship with an employer to improve their job prospects.
“LISC’s Bridges to Career Opportunities program connects clients to middle-skills jobs with a career pathway, and also helps local employers find employees who can get the job done,” says Staniszewski.
LISC Rhode Island has contracted with Genesis Center to provide employment and training to clients currently receiving SNAP benefits. As the agency responsible for SNAP E&T on behalf of the state, LISC Rhode Island works with program partners to deliver key services to those currently on food stamps.
“Workforce development is a key issue for LISC,” said Staniszewski. “It’s a mission-driven priority to help people find success in the workplace.”
Molina’s success came when she asked to volunteer with the students in Genesis Center’s ESL classes, which she hoped would help her continue to improve her English and gain experience teaching. The folks at Genesis Center agreed.
“Enriqueta was a natural teacher from day one. Students responded to her positive energy, as well has her empathy. As someone who struggled to find her way in the U.S. and learn English, she understood the challenges of her students. That resulted in a rich and supportive learning environment,” says Shannon Carroll, president and CEO of Genesis Center.
“It wasn’t easy,” says Molina. By this time, Molina had three small children at home and didn’t drive. “The most interesting thing to me was that the students loved me,” she says. “They used to tell me, ‘You should be the teacher.’”
After two years of volunteering at Genesis Center, Molina was offered a position to work as a Teaching Assistant on a part-time basis.
“Genesis Center was starting another ESL class and they had some funding for a teaching assistant,” said Molina. “It was only 11 hours a week in the beginning, but it was a wonderful start for me,” she says.
For the next seven years, Molina worked as an assistant teacher and eventually, when the regular teacher took a leave of absence, Molina was asked to teach the class on her own for a summer session.
Molina was nervous, but eagerly stepped into the role. “I said, ‘I think I can do it!’”
At the end of the session, the students asked if she would continue with them. “I was honest and said they would have other teachers,” said Molina. “But the students pushed back and said that they wanted to keep me.’!”
Molina’s class took a petition to the president of Genesis Center.
“To my surprise, the president came to me and said that the students loved me and wanted me to continue! I was shocked. I never thought I would be in front of all these people!” she says. “After all those years that I struggled with English, I thought it wasn’t for me. I still can’t believe it.”
The ESL class is a pivotal program at Genesis, and has helped many clients improve or find employment. Molina’s class is supported by RI SNAP Employment and Training, a program of the United States Department of Agriculture, and is designed to provide SNAP recipients with training, education and supports to help them successfully prepare to enter the workforce. The program, administered by LISC Rhode Island on behalf of the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, serves hundreds of people each year at Genesis. LISC RI contracts with a variety of organizations that offer a wide range of opportunities for SNAP participants including skills training leading to industry-recognized credentials, adult education for all levels, and ESL classes.
Molina is happy about the example she has set for her children.
“My sons still tell me that I have been a big example for them,” she says. “My middle son tells me: ‘Sometimes I feel very discouraged but I kept going because you’re so strong. What I’m facing right now is nothing like what you faced.’”
All three of Molina’s sons graduated from the University of Rhode Island and are currently working in various science fields.
“I’m very lucky to have a job that I enjoy,” says Molina. “I think that’s the most important thing: to make a difference, and especially for people who have the same background as I do. I see myself in each student. This is not simply an English class, it’s their future.
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My Turn: Childcare a good taxpayer investment
The Rhode Island economy has started to show signs that it is rebounding. We’ve had good news about job growth and unemployment, and several notable employers have moved into the area. New programs will target the state’s widely acknowledged skills gap and the state has made it easier for many to obtain additional education past high school.
These are all important steps in addressing economic development. We’re not going to solve the workforce problem, however, without addressing deficits that will hamstring workforce development in our future.
A substantial body of research shows that a solid foundation is built in the earliest years of life and is critical to an individual’s long-term success. Research shows that a child’s earliest experiences affect brain development, and the formation of the brain in these earliest years directly correlates to the advancement of language, cognitive, social and emotional capacity.
The research makes sense intuitively. It’s clear that a child’s brain is in a dramatic state of development in those earliest years from birth to five, and of course a deficit during this period would have long lasting impact.
If Rhode Island wants to develop the workforce of tomorrow, while supporting today’s employees, then it needs to support early childcare. In our state, 73 percent of children under the age of six have both parents in the workforce — a rate that is higher than the U.S. rate — and we can only provide childcare for 70 percent of those children in licensed facilities. There are lengthy waitlists for infant care and the costs are very high. According to the Economic Progress Institute, a working family could spend more than a third of their income on childcare.
Of critical importance too, is the varying quality of care. Based on the standards set by Rhode Island’s tiered child-care rating system, only 9 percent of these facilities are considered high quality. In 2014, the Rhode Island Department of Education commissioned LISC Rhode Island to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the state’s child-care facilities. The assessment, entitled The Rhode Island Early Learning Facility Needs Assessment, found that a very significant number of the state’s child-care facilities needed substantial and often costly upgrades.
Since 2009, Rhode Island has expanded its pre-kindergarten program and opened 60 free, high-quality classrooms. While pre-kindergarten is an important component of a child’s early education and expanding access is a positive step, Rhode Island has simultaneously reduced funding for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, which subsidizes childcare for low-income families in the workforce or in training programs. Rhode Island’s program, with one of the most restrictive eligibility limits and reimbursement rates in New England, is critical to working families and our underserved communities.
Research tells us that the lack of investment in programs where children are spending significant amounts of time during their most rapid period of development is a tremendous missed opportunity. When children are already entering the school system with learning deficits, it’s time to focus on that period where support can have the most dramatic impact.
If we stay the course, today’s minimal investment in affordable, high-quality child care programs and facilities will erode our economy, diminish productivity, and result in a population that is ill-equipped to be the workforce of tomorrow.
Jeanne Cola is the executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Rhode Island.