Every new year after Miriam Mejia moved to Los Angeles, she set a goal for herself. This would be the year that she’d learn English, she would say to herself.

But somehow that goal had always remained out of reach.

Mejia, 35, was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States with her husband 15 years ago, when they were newlyweds. She took a job in a factory and started taking English classes, but soon, life got in the way. After having three children, juggling the language lessons alongside work and family became too difficult, so she stopped.

Still, she held onto her dream of learning English.

“I didn’t want it to be another 10 years before I learned English,” Mejia said. “Every year in January I thought about my goals, and I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to do this?’ ”

Last year, she found a way.

Mejia enrolled in the South Central Los Angeles Ministry Project (LAMP), a nonprofit school that serves low-income immigrant mothers and their young children.
In a neighborhood where more than one-third of families live below the poverty line and nearly half of adults don’t have a high school degree, according to 2016 Census data, women can take free classes in English as a second language and parenting, while their children are enrolled in preschool just steps away.

The idea is to not only provide child care while the mothers learn, but also to promote early childhood literacy, prepare the entire family to navigate the public school system — and empower women.

“Our goal is to help them become leaders,” said Diana Pinto, executive director of LAMP, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in October.

Diana Pinto is the Executive Director of LAMP. (John McCoy/Angelus News)

LAMP was formed in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Following the unrest, which left 63 dead and more than 2,000 injured, eight congregations of Catholic sisters came together to find a way to help South Central, the neighborhood most impacted. 

“We knew as single, individual congregations that we didn’t have the resources to take initiatives,” said Sister Mary Genino of the Sacred Heart, one of the founders of LAMP. “But we knew that together we could find a way to respond.”

They canvassed the neighborhood, going door to door asking families what they needed. 

“We didn’t have a project, a program or anything in mind,” said Sister Mary, who now lives in Italy as a member of the general leadership team in Rome. “Our intent was to find a way to listen to the people in the community with the idea that we wanted to build bridges, promote healing, and make a neighborhood again.”

The sisters found that as the neighborhood had shifted from predominantly African-American to Latino, one of the most pressing needs among women was learning English and developing the skills necessary to advocate for their children in a new country.

Hearing this, the sisters developed a program to cater to these needs.

“Investing in women, you invest in children,” Pinto said. “The higher their self-esteem and their confidence, the better advocates they’ll become for their children.”

Mothers and daughters sit in a LAMP classroom singing songs in English. (JOHN MCCOY/ANGELUS)

LAMP now has 32 women enrolled in the three-year program, and about 100 children in morning and extended hours care. Most families are either Mexican or Central American, said Pinto, and the children range in age from 3 days to 5 years old.

The women meet Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 a.m. until after noon. Most of their school day is English class — LAMP offers three levels — followed by a parenting class and a “mommy and me” literacy program known as Parent Child Interactive Literacy Activities (PCILA), which encourages mothers and children to read and develop good habits, like creating a home library, to make reading a core part of their daily routine.

By encouraging literacy in early childhood, the kids are less likely to fall behind once they get to school, said Carla Silva, a preschool teacher at LAMP.

Classes are free, but the women are required to maintain an 85 percent attendance rate and are expected to turn in all assignments and paperwork on time.

This commitment, said LAMP English teacher Sister Cathy Garcia, sets a good example.

“They’ve become great role models for their children because they see their moms studying, working and going to school,” she said.

Many of her students have overcome tremendous obstacles just to get there, Sister Cathy said. One gets up at 3 a.m. every day to sell fruit before her lessons. Another leaves LAMP in the afternoon and goes to work until late at night, so that she doesn’t get to sleep until 2 a.m. 

Sister Cathy Garcia. (David Amador Rivera/Angelus News)

But it pays off in their everyday lives, she said, whether it’s to talking to teachers at their children’s schools, or being able to translate for family members.

In addition to coursework, LAMP offers workshops in partnership with local agencies — nonprofits, hospitals, and law enforcement — on topics such as personal finance, school choice, mental health, and the difference between ICE and local police departments. 

LAMP also offers health screenings and a food distribution program, and organizes holiday festivals and field trips to expose the children to new parts of the city.

“We’re building their arsenal of tools,” said Pinto. “You’re not empowering families if they only go to you. You empower them by giving them the opportunity to meet new people and to be comfortable with the different resources that are out there.”

Mejia, now in her second year at LAMP, said while the program is helping with her goal of learning English, it’s also taught her other things that she didn’t expect. 

“It’s helped me in my character, in communication with my children and with my husband, and with my self-esteem,” she said. “There are so many things to do at home, but I’ve learned that I need to take that time with my family.”

Claudia Aquina (left) with her 4-year-old daughter Sophia Lara, and Miriam Mejia (right) with her 3-year-old daughter Naomi, read books in English. (JOHN MCCOY/ANGELUS)

Claudia Aquina, a 39-year-old student at LAMP and a mother of two, agreed, saying that on top of English, she’s learned how to spend quality time with her family.

“It’s challenging because there are a lot of responsibilities,” she said. “You have to wake up your kids, get them ready, take one to school. I don’t drive so I have to walk back, get the other one ready, make sure they have all the things ready for their school, make sure I have all my things for my education, and I have to have time to study.”

“It’s difficult,” said Aquina, “but it’s definitely worth it.”

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is an award-winning reporter and graduate of Harvard Divinity School whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, NBCNews.com, Religion News Service and other publications.

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