Today's blog is a guest post from Fredy, one of our Peer Leaders and dedicated volunteers. Thank you, Fredy, for sharing your story with us!
My name is Fredy Portillo. My story begins in 1999, in Copan, a small town in Honduras. When I was a baby my parents abandoned me. I was raised by my grandmother. and my cousins. As I grew up, my life was normal. However, I was different from the children around me because I valued what little I had. I never considered myself special, but everyday people told me - especially my teachers - that I was unique because I was focused, responsible and God had a big purpose for my life.
I did not have a childhood of wonderful things. I never had toys. I never had expensive clothes. My aunt made a lot of my clothes for me. I was never the favorite nephew. I was always bullied in my family and in my school. They called me ugly and useless when I was little. They said that my education was a waste of time because I would never be anyone. But I had a dream to be “somebody” in life.
When I was nine years old, my grandmother died. She was the only family that I had. She was my protector - a superhero. Abuela was my role model. Before she died, I promised her that I would achieve my dreams because I would never give up. She was the only one who believed in me. Her death was the first loss that I felt. Her death was the first thing that marked my life. From that moment on, everything changed. I was alone. I always asked God why me? But what I did not know is that God was doing all these things in my life to make me strong and to become the person I am now.
I never left school despite the many obstacles in my way- especially my difficult financial situation. There were no opportunities for my cousin to make money in our small town. At the age of 12, I finished elementary school. Unfortunately, there was no Middle School for me to go to. I asked God every day to direct me in the best way. I had to make a big decision: Move away to another city so I could continue to study. Because I had to be independent, my life took a huge turn. I was a child trying to be an adult. I was living alone, I was without a family, I was without money. I had nothing - except the desire to overcome the situation of my life and the faith that everything would go well.
In 2016 my situation worsened. I did not have more money and the little money I had was gone. I needed to start looking for resources. This was very difficult, but God had planned my life, and his plans for me were not in Honduras.
Now, I ask you. What difficulties would you be willing to face to follow your dreams? Would you risk your life? Honduras is an extremely disadvantaged and dangerous country, but it was my destiny to be born and to grow up there. I consider myself to be a dreamer. While in Honduras, my dreams seemed impossible but I still held on to a greater dream: to obtain the best education, to reach my goals, and to overcome all the obstacles that kept me from achieving these goals. My life has not been an easy one. I have lived alone from the age of thirteen until the age of seventeen. This was devastating but taught me to look at life in a different way. I had to become an adult quickly and I had to attend the calling of taking ownership over my dreams at an early stage of my life.
When I saw that my future would not be the best in Honduras, I decided to escape. I made the most dangerous decision possible and with nothing to go back to. I decided to immigrate and seek asylum in the United States. I traveled in the worst way possible; I risked my life on the dangerous roads of Mexico and traveled with strangers to find safety and the opportunity of a new life in the United States. This life was where I could develop all of my potential, and become someone who can transform the world. I crossed the river between Mexico and the United States and walked for sixteen days, I slept in abandoned houses, and ate food that seemed more garbage than food. I risked my life because I believed that everything is possible and that we all can achieve a dream if we want it with all of our hearts.
Today, I can see that all the effort and suffering that I had to endure was worth it. I am finally in the United States, and God has provided me with a wonderful and true family, a wonderful school, and a great support system to achieve my dreams. Now, for the first time, I feel that I have a real life.
Now, my next step is to finish university to gain the knowledge to pursue my dream of being a great archaeologist. I want to show that immigrants are capable of achieving dreams. We are people, not criminals. Immigrants are strong, hard-working, and valuable parts of American society.
I got into seven great universities, I was very proud to say "Yes" to Cornell College in Iowa. Unfortunately, this year, COVID-19 appeared and ruined all my plans to save money and get my college education. My plan was to work and save during the summer, but with the beginning of the quarantine, I lost my job. For this reason, I am asking for your help today with all my heart.
I have a dream, my dream is to get my education. And today I ask you to be part of my dream.
My name is Patti Mallozzi, and my volunteer position at Project Libertad is as an Adult English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Phoenixville. Each week, I spend about 30 minutes before class preparing, and one-hour teaching in the evening. When I first started, I was positive that giving back to my community would impact others, but I had no idea how much it would impact me.
Throughout the sessions I love seeing my students’ English Proficiency develop, but more exciting is seeing their confidence grow. I enjoy getting to know each person individually and have even become friends with some of the students. Despite being busy, these dedicated adults make attending class a priority. The students are appreciative of my time and any little thing I do for them. They’re motivated and want to learn, which makes teaching easy and fun.
Project Libertad has several programs for migrants, immigrants and their families. I am grateful they provide free Adult ESL classes because once parents can communicate in English, they are better equipped to provide for themselves and their families, fostering independence and improving the quality of their lives. Volunteering with this amazing group has been more rewarding than I ever could have imagined.
In light of the appalling situation affecting the less vulnerable, I felt the obligation to help in any way possible. This is my first experience as a volunteer and it has been extremely rewarding as well as a humbling one.
I learned about Project Libertad by googling local volunteering opportunities. Their footprint in the Norristown and Phoenixville area schools provides multiple times / locations that fit my schedule.
They have a great program in place including simple, educational, and engaging activities every week. It requires very little time to prepare for the sessions, and you can count on additional support from other volunteers.
I have truly enjoyed my time meeting, helping, and learning from the kids. The kids have been fully engaged in the activities and have actively participated in the discussions, sharing beautiful stories about their family, friends, and culture.
Volunteering with Project Libertad supporting the after-school program has been a unique experience. Dedicating a little bit of my time has resulted in a lot of smiles and lasting memories. I highly recommend joining the Project Libertad team as a volunteer to give a hand to these kids and make their day a bit brighter.
Hi, I’m Lauren, and I volunteer with the after-school program at Stewart Middle School in Norristown.
Like many people, I had been seeing on the news the dire situation that immigrant children were facing when entering our country, and I was wondering if there was some way to help. Then, I came across Project Libertad in a Facebook post looking for donations of art supplies for the program, so I checked it out. I decided that I would commit to volunteering, and even began to learn Spanish on Duolingo.
The program is extremely organized, so there is not work to do to prepare. The art and science projects have been the greatest way for me to connect with the kids. In the past, I have taught arts and crafts at camps and with my daughters’ activities. I love the enthusiasm that the kids have for creative projects. There are several who are talented, and I plan to talk to them more about the work I do as a graphic designer, and how they can be involved in the arts at their schools as they get older.
I have learned so much since beginning to volunteer, from Rachel, and also from the teachers and other volunteers that I met at Project Libertad. I have lived my whole life nearby to Norristown and was aware of the large immigrant community and wished to feel more connected. Project Libertad has done that for me. Knowing these children has been a blessing. Some are shy, and we are taking our time getting to know each other. I look forward to seeing their smiles every week! I am happy to be a welcoming face to them in our community - their new home.
2018 was a busy, whirlwind year of growth and progress for Project Libertad and all of our students! We went from having just one after school program in one school district to having five after school programs in two school districts, with a sixth in progress! We started up two brand new ESL classes for parents of our students. We even received our first grant from PA is Ready! to provide free legal services to our students and their families, in collaboration with HIAS Pennsylvania. Below, take a look at some of our favorite moments from 2018, and our annual report, which breaks down the work we've done this year.
We can't say thank you enough to all who have volunteered, donated, and cheered for us along the way. We can't wait to see what 2019 will bring!
--Rachel & the Project Libertad Team
Special thanks to Aayush Gupta, a volunteer from our Phoenixville Area Middle School Newcomer Group, for writing this blog post and sharing his reflections on volunteering with Project Libertad!
Volunteering at Project Libertad was a highly rewarding experience, due to the fact that it felt more like being an older brother/sister than anything else.
I know myself and my fellow volunteers enjoyed teaching, playing, and discussing with these wonderful kids, and watching them enjoy their time spending it with each other. It was amazing to see how the kids had such a positive outlook on life, despite their difficult time adjusting to life in the US and their potentially difficult circumstances at home. Surrounded by these kids, I was able to reinforce the idea in me that there is always room to learn, grow, and play, no matter your circumstances in life.
After working with these kids, I recognize that in whatever political and legal action that a country or institution takes or makes, the mental and physical welfare of kids should always be the top consideration and priority.
--Aayush Gupta, 2017-2018 volunteer, Phoenixville Area Middle School
Hi, Maggie here! I started volunteering with Project Libertad last year, and I absolutely loved it! I found out about the organization when I was researching places to volunteer at for one of my Spanish courses. This organization is perfect for anyone who wants experience working with children, practicing their Spanish skills, and/or helping out children who live in their community. For my volunteer work, I mainly volunteered at Gotwals Elementary in Norristown, PA. The kids in this group were super energetic and enthusiastic. Although at times it was a little difficult getting them to pay attention and participate, it was obvious that every single kid wanted to be there, and each one of them had gained better English skills, confidence, and lasting friendships. It can be super hard moving to a new country and attending a new school where everything is taught in a different language. With Project Libertad, these kids are able to open up and be themselves in the language most comfortable for them, while sharing experiences and playing with classmates who are living under similar circumstances.
The first day, the kids were a little hesitant because they were unsure of what was happening and seemed surprised that the leaders and volunteers were speaking to them and teaching lessons in Spanish. They very quickly warmed up, however, and were eager to participate. It was so rewarding watching them come out of their shells and show their true personalities in a place that was safe and welcoming. The program was weekly and was about an hour long. The first half was spent playing get-to-know you games or, as the weather became nicer, playing soccer or basketball outside. In the second half, we had an English lesson with themes such as food, jobs, animals, sports, family, etc. All of the themes were ones that the students picked out on the first day, which made them more invested and engaged in the lesson. After the lesson, we would hand out snack and do an activity that was based on the English lesson. An example of an activity would be drawing a picture of themselves playing their favorite sport and then describe what they drew in English. The volunteers would split up so there was one or two at each table to help them out. I always loved this part of the lesson, because it was more one-on-one with the students, and I got to better see just how clever and creative they all were.
Towards the end of the school year, I also was able to work with some of the middle schoolers in Phoenixville. Although the set up in the program is the same, the experience is much different. The students, though still excited about the program, are much more quiet and laid back. They were also more mature, which means we could do more involved activities with them. The last meeting, I even had the opportunity to lead an environmental science lesson with them, where they had to debate the benefits of using an unused plot of land for economic gain, versus using it for research and preserving it in some way. The students seemed to really enjoy it, and their ideas were super insightful.
My experience with Project Libertad has been incredible, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to participate and volunteer in it. I love that the organization is 100% centered around the kids. The founder, Rachel, has a lot of knowledge about Latin America, as well as experience working with individuals and families who have immigrated to the U.S. from Central and South America. This is evident in every aspect of the program, including structure of the meetings, communication with parents, and volunteer training. I would recommend anyone who has the interest and time to volunteer with this organization.
--Maggie Mawson, 2017-2018 volunteer
As we prepare for the upcoming school year and a host of exciting new projects, we've done a lot of reflecting about our first year of running support groups for newcomer students. We've asked our volunteers to reflect, too, about their experiences working with our students. As a result, over the next few weeks, you'll get the chance to hear about what it's like to work with Project Libertad from the very people who make our existence possible - our wonderful volunteers!
Today, check out the first part in this series, which comes from Jillian Flanagan, a dedicated volunteer who worked with our Phoenixville Area Middle School students during the 2017-2018 school year:
"I loved volunteering with Project Libertad! Each day was jam-packed with lessons and purposeful, fun activities to go with them. The kids were always engaged and ready to learn which made volunteering even more rewarding. At the same time, I was learning Spanish, too!
While the classroom was a safe haven, time was set aside to talk about what happens outside of the classroom. It touched me to see the students open up about their struggles being immigrants. I felt like I was doing important work when I got to be a part of the current issue conversation.
Project Libertad is a fantastic and necessary organization that I will be sad to leave when I head off to college in the fall!"
--Jillian Flanagan, 2017-2018 volunteer