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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Academy helps adults, children learn English, build brighter futures

PLANT CITY Yamilhet Jimenez wants to learn to speak English.

At 26, she has turned to the Family Literacy Academy of Tampa Bay, where she is mastering the language with other adults whose native tongue is Spanish.

She said she’s learning a lot at the academy, located in a former church near the Florida Strawberry Festival grounds. And she looks forward to the day - soon - when she can speak English fluently.

“The teacher here is very patient. She explains things well,” Jimenez said.

The academy has received many accolades since it was opened in 2011 by Angelica Ibarra, who was born into a family of migrant workers.

It’s one of three programs in the nation that the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy has affiliated with and provides ongoing financial aid. An official said the foundation is enthusiastically supporting the academy because it is operated by the Mexico-born Ibarra – who knows first-hand the challenges faced by adults who don’t speak or read English well.

“We are extremely proud of the work Angelica has done,” foundation president Liza McFadden said. “She has a passion. She’s on a mission to help people.”

The academy has among the highest academic standards of any program affiliated with the foundation, which was established by Barbara Bush to encourage literacy when Bush was first lady 25 years ago.

Ibarra, 43, has lived in the Plant City area since 1982 although for years she traveled the United States picking crops. She dropped out of school in the seventh grade and at age 15 ran away from home.

In her mid-20s, she decided on a new direction for her life. She went back to school, earned a GED, and attained degrees from Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida.

She decided she wanted to help others, and earned a certificate in nonprofit management from the University of Tampa.

“I wanted to make sure that others didn’t make the same mistakes I made. I wanted to give them a way to learn, even if they are adults,” she said. “It was a dream of mine to open up a center in this area.”

At 43 years old, the married mother of three is seeing her dream come true every day.

She is in her third year running the literacy center at the former Sunset Heights United Methodist Church at 416 Walter Drive.

The academy offers different classes including reading, writing and speaking English for Spanish-speakers, preschool where children were prepared for kindergarten and a class that encourages parents to read to their children. She has a staff of three with plans to hire another preschool teacher soon.

The academy has also offered piano and art classes and currently has a martial arts class that focuses on character development taught by a volunteer instructor.

A big part of her mission is to involve parents in their children’s education.

“We teach them that they need to keep up with their children’s schoolwork and be there to support them,” she said.

The going hasn’t always been easy for the academy.

The first year, the academy struggled with finances although the Barbara Bush foundation helped keep the doors open.

The outlook got brighter as more organizations got behind her.

The Bush foundation, which will provides $52,000 this year to pay students’ expenses, is still the largest contributor. But the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County is kicking in another $50,000 starting Oct. 1. More support has come from Driscoll’s Berries, Dollar General Foundation, International Paper, the school district’s adult education department and others.

The Rotary Club of Plant City is also helping with tutoring.

Ibarra is grateful for the help.

“Without the community’s support, things like this can’t happen,” she said. “You can have passion and you can have heart and all good intentions but without money you’ll never see your dreams come true.”

Ultimately, Ibarra’s goal is to help her students build brighter futures through education. And that it’s never too late to start.

“I feel like I had a second chance in life when I was in my 20s. I want others to see that they can do the same.”

The academy could use more support, she said. For information, call her at (813) 802-4623.

Twitter: @dnicholsonTrib

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