Immigrant's frustration misplaced

Jiverly Wong, a Vietnamese immigrant and American citizen, allegedly walked into a building in Binghamton, N.Y., last week and killed 13 people who were preparing for U.S. citizenship. He then killed himself.

Reports said Wong, 41, felt degraded by his inability to speak English fluently and by the loss of his job.

I didn't understand that.

I understand losing a job and the very real frustrations inherent in learning a foreign language, a gift I do not have.

But the programs at the American Civic Association, the building in which Wong allegedly committed the massacres, were there for his benefit. And he himself had used them.

Wong's reported comments made it seem as if immigrants come to the United States and are then told to sink or swim. That simply is not the case.

In Lexington and some surrounding counties, for instance, immigrants can find a lot of free language help as well as solutions to other daily living hurdles through the Bluegrass Literacy program.

Bluegrass Literacy offers free English, adult literacy, and GED study skills classes for small groups throughout the community. It serves more than 900 students at 45 class sites and on 20 farms. Most of those served attend English language classes, but the program also supports 80 adult basic learners, 45 people in GED groups and 360 children and youths during free summer literacy camps.

At least for now.

Like so many other social programs, Bluegrass Literacy has watched funding sources dry up in this tight economy, said its executive director, Norma Spencer. Most of her funding comes from area farms and the religious community.

"One grant provider that regularly gives me money for the summer gave me 30 percent less," Spencer said. "You just can't plan for what you normally had."

But Spencer operates the grass-roots literacy program on a bare-bones budget by partnering with other agencies to eliminate overhead. The program exists on in-kind donations and computer access, plus the services of volunteers, practicum students from the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University, three full-time year-round AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers and three others for several weeks in the summer. "No way can we do the programming without those people," she said.

AmeriCorps VISTA is the national service program in which members serve a year at a non-profit organization or a local government agency whose services combat poverty.

Although Bluegrass Literacy is feeling the pinch, Spencer said many people are in worse shape.

For example, 20 of her tutors lost their jobs last year, she said. Because of that, the program helps them with the cost of gas or helps them find tutoring jobs at nearby centers.

And she said she received 105 applications for three available summer VISTA positions. Normally, she gets about 30. "I'm still getting applications, and I closed it on the 10th of March," Spencer said.

Some of the applications are from people who have doctorates and some with 20 years of experience in education, not the typical college or graduate student. There were even applicants who called from Arizona and Nevada.

"It's only $850 a month, and they take taxes out of that," she said. "But a lot of them have not worked for some time."

"It was strange and scary for me," Spencer said. "Normally I will have a few who say, 'I need to have something to do for the summer.' Didn't have any like that. They were all more than qualified."

Whomever she selects will have plenty to do.

Besides the free classes in English as a second language, the GED study groups and the adult literacy classes, the program also offers classes through its service-learning program, Literacy Blooms. One of those groups of classes is "Wholesome Table," 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.

"Many of them didn't have electricity where they came from, and some didn't have kitchens like ours or know how to maintain one," Spencer said.

She said some even threw out turkeys they received in baskets at Thanksgiving because they had no idea how to cook them.

Another group is the "Pin Cushion Project," which supports sewing classes for the 22 nationalities that Bluegrass Literacy serves and the Summer Teen Fashion Workshop sponsors. Any woman willing to teach or to learn how to sew is welcome to participate.

Eventually, Spencer said, she wants the project to host a non-profit repair shop and an arts and textile boutique.

The only classes for which a donation is requested are the Spanish classes, which can be held at area businesses, churches or clubs. There are currently nine of those classes in the community, and participants are asked to give only a $5 donation at each meeting. The classes range from 10-week startups to continuing groups.

"I think there is a real need for better communication that comes from people understanding each other," she said.

As for the violence in Binghamton last week, "I have never had a bad experience with my students being intimidating," she said, "Most of those who have come here want their children to have a better life. A lot work two jobs.

"America has added to their lives," she said. "They appreciate that."