When Maria Araujo came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 16 with her family, she didn’t want to be in school.
Her father enrolled her at John Tyler High School, where in her own words she pretty much cried all day because she couldn’t speak English.
She begged her father to let her drop out of school and work for him in whatever capacity he needed, but he wouldn’t let her.
Through a friend, Ms. Araujo, who is now 30, learned about the Literacy Council of Tyler and started attending English classes at night after school.
With the help of those classes, support from her family and her own perseverance and hard work, she graduated from high school, and went on to Tyler Junior College and The University of Texas at Tyler.
Today, she is a college graduate and registered nurse, working at East Texas Medical Center.
“I really wanted to be somebody in life, and without you guys, I don’t think I would have been able to be something,” Ms. Araujo said through tears.
Ms. Araujo and her brother, who also spoke, provide just a few examples of the broader implications of the Literacy Council’s work.
Not only does the nonprofit help people learn English, but it prepares them for college and the workforce through its GED classes, college prep program and career pathways program.
The event the Araujos spoke at was the Literacy Council’s Circle of Honor Donor Luncheon.
The luncheon provided an opportunity for the council to thank more than 100 donors who have sponsored one or more students or contributed to the nonprofit’s endowment.
“This could not have been accomplished without your generosity,” emcee KYTX CBS 19 anchor Gillian Sheridan said.
In addition to recognizing the Araujos, Literacy Council President Nancy Crawford remembered GED Supervisor Rick Swain, who died suddenly on Dec. 31.
Swain started as a volunteer at the Literacy Council in 2007 and grew to love the organization’s mission.
His skills - honed during his time as a car salesman - allowed him to motivate students to enroll and persevere once in the GED program.
It was his ability to identify with his students struggles - Swain had flunked out of Notre Dame because of excessive partying, but later earned a college degree - that endeared him to them.
He was the brains behind the nonprofit’s intensive eight-week college prep program, which aimed to prepare students who had completed their GED for success in higher education.
It accomplished just that with 75 percent of its more than 200 student participants successfully completing their first semester of college, a rate much higher than the typical 27 percent for GED grads.
Looking back at 2016, Ms. Crawford reported an increase in students served, study hours, career pathways or college prep class participants and volunteers used.
The nonprofit also received $1.3 million in federal funding for its programs, money received through an arduous, competitive process, Ms. Crawford said.
In a surprise to the organization, the Texas Workforce Commission recognized the Literacy Council with third place for having the most GEDs awarded of 34 programs in Texas.
In closing out the program, Maria Araujo and her brother Juan Araujo thanked the donors for their support.
Araujo, like his sister, benefited from the nonprofit’s work. When he came to the U.S. at 19, his work supervisor told him to take classes at the Literacy Council because he needed to learn English to keep his job.
Once Araujo became skilled in the language, his boss told him he could stop, but by then, he had fallen in love with school, he said.
He continued taking classes and eventually earned his GED and later passed the citizenship test to become a U.S. citizen. Last year, the 34-year-old took the college prep course and this year he is an engineering student at TJC.
His goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a dream that had gone dormant working on a farm in his native country of Mexico, but one that came alive again in the U.S., “where everything is possible,” he said.
“I will remember all your help deep in my heart,” Araujo said. “Thank you very much.”