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Latino program helps immigrant families achieve their American dream

By Jacqueline Howard, CNN
updated 9:59 AM EST, Wed February 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LaAmistad started 2001 with 2 dozen students
  • Program helps Latino children and parents with language, education, counseling
  • A sister program opened in Texas and there are plans to open a dozen more campuses

(CNN) -- Gaby Ortiz was just 15 years old when she left her home in Mexico and emigrated to the United States in the late 1990s.

She was young, newly married and thought achieving the American Dream would be instantaneous. But her life in Atlanta, Georgia, didn't quite start out that way. She was scared, didn't speak any English, couldn't find a job, and was pregnant with her first child.

Over the next few years, Ortiz gave birth to two children, Ramiro and Alondra. She says she stayed home all the time and she only associated with the Latino community in Atlanta because it was the only place she felt comfortable. However, her life changed when Ramiro began kindergarten in 2004. Ortiz still didn't speak English and had no idea how she was going to be able to help Ramiro with his schoolwork.

Ortiz says she was determined to learn English and fast. "We put everything aside. No Spanish TV. It was just English. So, Ramiro whatever he brought from school I was learning with him, helping him, and learning and going to classes."

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That same year, Ortiz heard about LaAmistad, a nonprofit after-school tutoring organization specifically geared to Latino students and their families. She enrolled Ramiro to make sure that someone could help him with his schoolwork. She was mainly concerned that he wouldn't speak English well and would fall behind in school.

LaAmistad is different from most after-school programs because it also provides classes and workshops for parents. In addition to English as a second language classes, there are also workshops on finance, health, nutrition and parenting. Parents learn everything from balancing a checkbook to how to cook healthy meals on a limited budget.

"The La Amistad families have been able to acclimate here in the U.S. so much easier because we've given them the tools. They are very comfortable in social settings. They are comfortable participating in the PTA. They are comfortable going to the grocery store and having a conversation with the checkout lady," says La Amistad Program Director Cat McAfee.

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"What we've noticed is the parents are then more invested. They will go into the school and advocate for their children and it makes for a well-rounded family."

The program started in 2001 at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta with a couple dozen students and a handful of volunteers. Since then, the program has helped more than 100 students and their families, says McAfee. LaAmistad has also opened two other campuses in Atlanta and one in Mount Pleasant, Texas. It plans on opening a dozen more campuses over the next five years in Atlanta and other locations in the United States with a high Latino population.

Ortiz and her children have been a part of LaAmistad for eight years. Now 30, she is a single mother raising three children. Ortiz says that thanks in part to LaAmistad, she is fluent in English, has a full-time job, takes GED classes, and is active at her children's schools.

Her daughter Alondra, in sixth grade, and younger son Marco, now in kindergarten, have received full scholarships to an Atlanta private school, she told CNN. Ramiro is in the eighth grade and plans to go to college to become a cardiologist or a lawyer. LaAmistad, says Ortiz, is helping her family make their American dreams come true.

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