Most of us from rural communities, especially here in the mountains, have experienced a degree of prejudgment based on how we talk. Those who are “more enlightened” often subtract IQ points as soon as they hear our accents. Some time back a worker in Alleghany County faced a similar experience as he was considered for a job promotion. Though he possessed the knowledge and ability to handle the new workload, his English language skills were lacking. It was feared that those missing skills would be an impediment to customer service. The job went to someone else.
Uvaldo Piedras experienced that struggle with language firsthand. He came to Sparta from Mexico in 2003 when he was ten years old. When he began elementary school classes he was unable to speak English. Since kids generally have fewer inhibitions, he picked up the language in its basic form in 6-8 months. This began his integration into Alleghany County life.
By 8th grade Uvaldo was fully engaged, participating in sports, specifically wrestling and track. In high school he added football and power lifting. At age 15 he could bench press 315 lbs.
In addition to his athletic ability, Uvaldo’s possessed strong math skills. Back in Mexico, students didn’t use calculators. Instead, they worked through math problems using pencil and paper. Once he arrived in Sparta, Uvaldo still relied on pencil and paper.
But work sometimes got in the way of school activities. Beginning at age 13 and all through high school, he worked in Christmas trees during the harvest season. His father had spent 20 years working in Alleghany County before he brought his family to Sparta. He instilled a strong work ethic in Uvaldo while stressing that education is the key to success.
After high school, Uvaldo worked at the New River Campground and the El Torito Restaurant before landing a job at the Parkdale Plant just outside of Sparta.
Then he faced a pivotal moment in life. He became a father.
This news and the impending responsibility kicked his work ethic into overdrive. He often worked 60-70 hours a week. Recalling his dad’s advice on education, Uvlado enrolled in Wilkes Community College (WCC). He volunteered for double shifts on the weekends so he could devote more time to school and being a parent.
At WCC, his talent for math was awakened when he took an accounting class. He was told of an accounting job at TruLine Truss. He applied and received the job.
At 23 years of age, Uvaldo’s life was on track. He had a good job, was finishing his degree work at WCC, and was balancing work and school with being a single parent of two children. He volunteered as a youth soccer coach. Yet for all his personal success, he realized there were others in the community whose needs weren’t being met. Many were hardworking individuals that lacked basic language skills to help move them to the next level of economic security. Even though virtually every minute of his life was filled, he volunteered to help start an English as a Second Language (ESL) class at WCC.
Uvaldo printed flyers and posted them around the county. He contacted people he thought would be interested in the class. The first night 35 adult students showed up and they had to move to a larger classroom. The class now averages 15-20 with the harvest season siphoning off some students.
Utilizing a combination of PowerPoint presentation, lecture and practical exercise, the classes are set up based on the students’ needs. A recent topic dealt with the language skills necessary for a doctor’s visit. A student later reported that for the first time she made her own doctor’s appointment and attended without a translator. Another student worked on skills that helped her successfully pass her United States citizenship test which led her to a better job. The students are encouraged to use polite words such as “please” and “thank you” and Uvaldo challenges them to expand their vocabulary with college level words. He urges them speak with confidence.
What’s next for Uvaldo? He credits mentors at WCC with encouraging him to continue his education when he graduates from WCC next spring. He has visited Berea College in Kentucky and hopes to attend there next fall. The work/study program at Berea seems a perfect fit for Uvaldo. He plans to begin preparing for his citizenship test. Long-term he hopes to obtain his Certified Public Accountant license and return to Sparta. He describes Alleghany County as a great place to live, work and raise a family.
Opportunities exist to volunteer with the ESL program. A special need is for childcare workers while the parents are in class. Call The Alleghany Center of Wilkes Community College at 336-372-5061 for more information on volunteering or enrolling in classes.