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Helping immigrants break down barriers to getting better jobs

English teacher Aida Hailu (center) worked with Rayhanatou Barry of Guinea, during class at The English For Advancement program. Listening is Hilda Morales of Guatemala. Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Ana Cristina Garcia is a soft spoken native of Guatemala City who — despite her diminutive size — can install a bathroom, lay floors and carpets, put up walls, and, in fact, rebuild an entire home. She learned by watching her mother’s husband make repairs after the massive 1976 earthquake laid waste to so many structures in her homeland.

At age 18, “I saw. I asked. I made mistakes. I practiced,” Garcia said.

Now at 59, she does construction work, landscaping, painting, cooking, accounting, and teaching the Bible to children.

While she is a woman of many skills, she lacks an important one: English. Since she arrived in the United States four years ago, she has struggled to make a living. So when she learned about a free program called English for Advancement, which pairs workplace classes with one-on-one career counseling, she gave it a try.


She has been taking classes in Lynn three afternoons a week since the program started in March and going on interviews for jobs. The three-year program, part of the state’s Pay for Success initiative, also operates in Lawrence, Lowell, East Boston, Dorchester, and downtown Boston.

“We get a lot of people without jobs,” said Emily Chick, career coach in Lynn. “Some have been laid off or have recently arrived to the US. Others are underemployed with not enough hours, not enough pay, or in jobs that don’t allow them to use their skills. We talk to them about realistic goals, create a resume, and prepare for interviews.”

Of Lynn’s more than 91,000 residents, nearly 49 percent speak a language other than English at home. The number is slightly lower among the more than 109,000 residents of Lowell — close to 44 percent — and much higher in Lawrence, where English is not the first language for about 76 percent of close to 78,000 who live there.


Garcia was happy to go on an interview Chick set up with a restaurant in Swampscott’s Vinnin Square. Garcia’s dream job, teaching children, is something that will have to wait until her English improves.

Career coach Emily Chick works with Ana Cristina Garcia.Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Lynn workplace English teacher Aida Hailu gives instruction on filling out job applications, role-plays job interviews, and helps students practice speaking about their skills and experience. She gives lessons on understanding pay stubs, employee benefits, comprehending written and verbal instructions on the job, reading safety hazard posters, and more.

All participants must show proof of permission to work in the US: a green card, visa, or social security card.

Of her many successes, Hailu mentioned another Lynn resident, Andie Bonilla, 25, who left what Hailu calls, “a dead-end cleaning job with no benefits and low pay” for a job as a housekeeper at the North Shore Medical Center in Salem.

When Bonilla, who came from the Dominican Republic five years ago, expressed doubt about switching jobs, Hailu told her to “just get your foot in the door and then you’ll have room to grow. You could get full time, more pay, and move into a different position in another department at the hospital.”

Bonilla heeded her teacher’s advice and got the job. “Aida prepared me for the interview at Salem Hospital,” she said. Now she has the added benefit of having to speak English with her coworkers, where in her previous job everybody spoke Spanish. Her English is improving and she hopes some day to become a secretary as she was in her native country.


The Pay for Success initiative has two Boston-based nonprofit partners, Jewish Vocational Service and Social Finance.

Social Finance raised $12.43 million from 40 investors, including financial institutions, donor advised funds, individuals, and foundations. Investors will be repaid based on the level of measurable success of the program, which, in addition to English for Advancement, includes job training, and college preparation.

“This innovative source of private and public capital, where government pays only for what works, enables JVS to scale our workforce development model, reduce waiting lists [for English classes], and prepare thousands of talented immigrant workers to meet the demands of our booming economy,” said Jerry Rubin, president and CEO of Jewish Vocational Service.

Amy Nishman, a vice president at JVS, said the program — which is less than a year old — is serving 300 students in six cities with a goal of enrolling at least 1,000.

Nishman said the majority of people taking English classes are there because they want a new or better job.

“We are reaching out to students through community-based agencies, schools, and health centers because we are scaling JVS’s effective programming in communities outside of downtown Boston,” she said.

Lynn Housing and Neighborhood Development, Lynn Economic Opportunity, Inc., Lawrence CommunityWorks, and the Lawrence Working Families Initiative are partners in those cities. Partners in Lowell are the Coalition for a Better Acre, the International Institute of New England, and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.


“We have nurses, doctors, teachers, bank staff, account managers, shop workers, customer service representatives, and secretaries in our classes,” said Chick, the career coach in Lynn. “It’s just the English that is a barrier. They just need some help.”

Bette Keva can be reached at