Thanks to Joe Distelheim of Hilton Head Island for sharing his story about Mayira Diaz, 2011 Bill Bligen Adult Literacy Student of the Year award winner at Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry.
English and Beyond
By Joe Distelheim
Everybody likes a success story. Here's a really good one.
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In the late 1990s, Mayira Diaz, her husband Hugo Tobar and their three children were living in their native Colombia, the South American nation that was wracked with drug violence, kidnappings and guerilla warfare. Hugo was a policeman, a most dangerous job.
"We wanted a safer place to raise our children," Mayira recalls. So they left the life they knew for the unknown of the United States. They moved to Miami.
"We came without anything," she said. "An aunt was there, but we wanted to live on our own."
Mayira took care of children, took care of the elderly, cleaned rooms in a hotel, worked as a cashier in a parking lot. Hugo worked on boats and in construction, "whatever."
"We worked two jobs daily. We did everything."
Within three months, Mayira says, the children -- 16, 7 and 3 then -- were "absolutely bilingual." But their parents' schedule left no time to learn the language of their new country.
They stayed in Miami for five years. Then, because they had a friend on Hilton Head Island, "we came here for two or three days. When we came here, we fell in love with this beautiful island."
And so they moved, and their children thrived, and they started a business. Then, Mayira set about learning English and beyond -- studying for her General Education Development degree, the equivalent of a high school diploma, through the Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry.
She started at St. Francis Catholic School at the first level, and worked her way through beginning, intermediate and advanced classes. Volunteer Bonnie DeRounian taught her to write essays. Coordinator Jane Stuart told her that Literacy Volunteers was going to start GED classes, and she jumped at the chance. Volunteer James Pegolotti worked with her for a year on the GED curriculum -- "a big, big book."
She praises all of them: "I couldn't make it without their help."
Last fall, she went to Beaufort and took the test, an all-day examination covering English (reading and an essay) math, social studies and science. Recently, on a rainy day, she carefully took the wrapping off a package to display the diploma her husband had framed for her and the transcript showing well-above-average scores in nearly every subject.
Successes? Her education, and the diploma at age 49. The business she and Hugo operate, Robinson Tobar Painting, which also does remodeling and cleaning. Their children: The oldest, Martha, a college graduate, is human resources manager for a hotel in Charleston, W.Va. Maria Del Mar is a student at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, studying fine arts and design. Son Santiago is in high school.
And, she lives on Hilton Head, which she still loves. "I travel two times a year," she said. "I know all the U.S. from the Keys to Canada. Hilton Head is the most beautiful place I have known."
Next? She'll keep studying, toward citizenship, even college.
"For me it's been a pleasure," she says. "Others won't go through this. English is a crazy language. They think it's too hard to get a new language when you're old. I feel younger when I study."
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