Maria Lopez knows exactly what it's like to move to a close yet unfamiliar country and try to navigate her way through daily life.
As secretary of the board of Centro Hispano de Frederick, she deals with immigrants struggling to learn enough English just to be able to read a bill or speak with their child's teacher at school.
Lopez, 29, was in similar circumstances as a 9-year-old who moved with her parents from California, where she was born, to her parents' native country, Mexico, in a town near Guadalajara.
She said she spoke and understood her parents' mother tongue but didn't know how to read or write Spanish.
"That was a real challenge," she said.
The public school she attended placed her in first grade for a few days, then second for a few more, and finally fourth. Her teacher would dictate lessons, and Lopez said it took her a while to be able to understand what was being said.
"I didn't know what to do," she said.
She eventually acclimated and thrived, attending a university in Guadalajara, where she earned a degree in English as a Second Language.
Lopez also met her husband, a native of Mexico, and the two moved when she was 21 to State College, Pa., so he could study for his doctorate.
She hadn't planned to return to the U.S., and though she was a native English speaker, she said she had to readjust to life in the country.
Her college major didn't translate in the Pennsylvania school system, so she said she found a job teaching ESL and Spanish at a private school.
About two years ago, Lopez moved to Frederick as her husband found work in the area.
She started working at Centro Hispano in the nonprofit's front office. Aside from clerical duties, she helped people make phone calls or translate bills or letters; many people had no idea what was being said.
"It could be scary for them," Lopez said.
Lopez took a break from Centro after her child was born, but when she returned in November, director Maria-Teresa Shuck asked her to become a board member.
Lopez said she began to bring more order and a curriculum to English classes at the center that had previously not required registration or had much organization.
She developed four different levels to the free, eight-week courses and asked students to sign up, hoping the efforts would inspire more students to improve.
"Maria is a true asset to Centro Hispano and the community at large," Shuck said. "As our ESL coordinator she has done a fantastic job guiding our teachers, and our students are thriving under her programs."
Participation is up in recent weeks, from a couple of dozen to 40 or more, and more people are expressing interest in signing up, Lopez said.
Still, the center needs about four more than the five teachers already volunteering, as well as updates to the books that have been donated, she said. The center is also looking to expand hours for English classes from Tuesday and Thursday evenings to Monday through Thursday.
Students' abilities range from the most elemental English to people who can speak and understand well but are looking to improve their grammar, Lopez said.
"People are very appreciative," she said. "They're willing to spend the time here and learn."
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