American Dream @ your library Initiative helps Waukegan, Illinois, community members improve their lives and pay it forward

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Forty miles north of Chicago, the Waukegan (Ill.) Public Library (WPL) is giving new Americans the skills and confidence to improve their lives and “pay it forward” to their neighbors, thanks to support from the American Dream Starts @ your library initiative.

Carmen Patlan, WPL’s community engagement and Spanish literacy manager, credits the initiative for giving the library the resources to structure classes that are helping individuals achieve their American Dream. The grant has enabled the library to hire a coordinator who works with a team of ambassadors to reach out and engage the community, conduct market research, and assess the community’s needs and the barriers that may prevent its members from succeeding. The library can then address these needs.

“These barriers could be the lack of English-speaking skills, the lack of being able to obtain your naturalized citizenship status, the lack of driving ability, the lack of digital literacy,” Patlan says. Programs at WPL include “Leamos,” which means “let’s read.” Leamos allows individuals who have never set foot in a school to teach themselves how to read and write through a web-based program. These individuals can then transition into a regular or a conversational English as a second language (ESL) program—and eventually into a general educational development (GED) program, which can result in a certificate of high school equivalency.

Another program is “Conversation ESL,” in which individuals carry on a conversation, targeting an area they specifically need to learn. This could mean situations involving speaking to a doctor or participating in a parent-teacher conference—even something as basic as going on a job interview or as essential as knowing what to say during a 911 call.

Conversation ESL alone has classes that average 50 students per week. The GED program has grown from 11 graduates to classes with 60 students. The library has also implemented a temporary driver’s license program and a citizenship program.

Fabio and Pedro

Those who have become successful under the grant and then given back to the community include promoters and GED tutors Fabio Gomez and Pedro Gomez.

In one five-month period, Fabio helped 11 students obtain their GED. He says his aim was to give back to the community. Fabio tailors his instruction to the lifestyle of the student and says his favorite thing about the Waukegan library is the array of programs, including English, Spanish, math, and GED tutoring. In his words, the American Dream is “to help the community, give back to the community.”

Pedro started as a library volunteer and worked toward his goal of learning to speak English. He began to volunteer with the Conversation ESL class, where he realized the benefits of acquiring his GED, which he obtained after one month of diligent study.

“My American Dream is to keep going and improve my oral skills, and in the future to have a better job,” says Pedro.

The efforts at WPL show that American Dream libraries are not just improving resources and programs but also helping to instill a sense of lifelong literacy and learning within the communities they serve.

For over 100 years, our public libraries have been a foundation of the American Dream, providing equal access to information of all kinds and lifelong learning opportunities to families new to the United States as well as those who have been here for generations. The Dollar General Literacy Foundation is proud to support this proud tradition through supporting The American Dream Starts @ your library® grant initiative.

Each American Dream library is located in a community served by Dollar General Stores, affirming our strong commitment to our customers and their communities.

With this current third round cohort of 44 libraries, this initiative has now served 144 libraries across the country since 2008 to build innovative and effective literacy programs for adult English Language Learners. 

Dollar General believes learning to read, receiving your GED, or learning the English language is an investment that opens doorways for personal, professional, and economic growth – a tradition that began with our founder, J.L. Turner, who was functionally illiterate with only a third grade education. Since 1993, the Dollar General Literacy foundation has awarded more than $97 million to nonprofit organizations and schools that have helped more than 5.8 million individuals advance their literacy and basic education skills. Literacy is the gift that cannot be taken away, and it lasts a lifetime.

We are very proud of the American Dream libraries for all that they continue to accomplish in their communities and of the people who have participated in these programs.

For more information, view the following video or visit the American Dream Starts @ your library toolkit.

Learn more about the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, including how to make a donation.