Maria Yosifova and Miroslav Durmov came to Lexington from Bulgaria with their two sons in 2003. The married couple were looking for the peace they hoped would be inherent in a new life.
While they did find peace from Bulgarian politics, they soon learned starting over in a foreign country would take time, even for two well educated people.
Yosifova, 50, had been a lawyer in their native land and Durmov, 57, who had been a member of parliament for a dozen years, had a doctorate.
The couple found employment here, Yosifova said, "but nothing related to our backgrounds. I was a housekeeper here and my husband worked in a factory."
It was a cultural shock, a new reality that was filled with language and custom barriers, she said.
Because their English-speaking skills were limited, Yosifova knew their opportunities would be limited as well. While at the Northside Branch of the Lexington Public Library, she asked if there was a place she and her husband could take English language lessons.
Luckily, Norma Spencer, executive director of Bluegrass Literacy (Bluegrassliterary.org), was at the library. Founded in 2003, Bluegrass Literacy offers free English as a Second Language, adult literacy, and GED study skills classes. It serves nearly 900 students at 42 class sites with 230 tutors.
Most of those served attend free English language classes, but a growing number of residents are joining free adult basic education (ABE) classes in which they can finally shirk their shame of illiteracy. For $5 a session, Bluegrass Literacy also offers language classes for those wanting to learn a new language.
The agency started Wholesome Table, a class in which immigrants are taught where to shop, how to shop, how to read the labels, how to cook our foods and how to clean a kitchen.
Lavenia Baxter, a long-time volunteer tutor, said she noticed the mother of a refugee family her church had sponsored was left out of the socializing efforts extended to the family.
"I started teaching her to read," Baxter said. "I took her to the library once a week when the kids were in school. She didn't know English, didn't know the sounds and had never been to school."
But the Bulgarian immigrants wanted to read, write and understand the English language more than anything else.
"Unless we could understand it on a decent level we would not be about to find a decent job and provide for our children and ourselves," Yosifova said.
Meeting Spencer began a four-year journey in which the couple, both holding down full-time jobs, attended a couple of English as a Second Language classes each week to better understand the country they had chosen as their home.
"Due to our personal efforts and the quality of the classes, our English improved," Yosifova said. "I went back to college and my husband is in college now because we knew without an American diploma, our education would not be recognized."
Yosifova earned a librarian technician's associate's degree from Bluegrass Community and Technical College and Durmov is working toward a degree in special education from the University of Kentucky, while employed at Amazon.
The couple could have simply held high the evidence of their hard work and perseverance and let people sing their praises. But that just wasn't good enough for the new U.S. residents.
Now, they both are tutoring others for Bluegrass Literacy. Durmov, who speaks Bulgarian, Russian, German, French and English, concentrates on the adult learners or those with learning disabilities. Yosifova, who speaks Bulgarian, Russian and English, teaches Russian.
That's great, but the agency needs more volunteers as dedicated as they are.
"We could use a few GED tutors for the fall tutor pool, but mostly we need ABE tutors and more ESL tutors," Spencer said. "All our tutors are volunteers and we offer training for tutors and mentorship support as they start to work with adult learners."
Tutor orientation and training sessions begin in September and anyone 15years old and older is welcome. Contact Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (859) 299-5982 for more information.
"We need people as tutors in ESL, tutors for people with learning disabilities, and for people who want to get their GED," Yosifova said. "Some just need special attention. This organization makes a difference."
Baxter, who has taught adult learners for six years, said if you have the will, you can tutor.
"You must have patience and you have to want to do this," she said. "You just have to know something about the sounds of words.
"I enjoy it," she said. "It's more rewarding to me than what the students get out of it."