Impact Week: Fighting for Financial Stability

Merilan Reyes
Merilan Reyes has become more confident through her English as a Second Language classes at Voces in Battle Creek.

More than 1 in 3 households in our region are either in poverty or struggling to make ends meet. United Way works to help these vulnerable families and individuals become financially stable. That includes ALICE—Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employed—people who work but can’t get ahead financially, who are one unexpected bill away from poverty.

United Way BCKR’s Income goal is to help 8,500 households achieve economic stability by 2025.

Merilan’s Story

When Merilan Reyes first came to the United States from the Dominican Republic, she was not comfortable communicating in English. The teenager and her two brothers came with their father to attend school here, and she found the language challenging.

A friend told her about Voces, a Battle Creek organization that offers English as a Second Language classes. The program is funded by United Way as a strategy to reduce barriers to economic stability. Merilan began attending and gradually built up her skills and confidence in writing, spelling and speaking English.

Two years and many classes later, the 19-year-old is a freshman at Kellogg Community College who has found a passion for child care and takes her language and psychology studies very seriously. She’s also instructing her younger brothers in English using the skills she’s learned at Voces and the teaching methods she’s observed there.

“One is in high school and the little one is in preschool, and I also have to teach them,” Merilan said. “At Voces, I know how they teach, and I can teach my brothers.”

She said that for her, pronunciation is a big challenge.

“The most difficult thing for me is speaking English, because I’m really shy and I don’t really want to talk,” she said. “But I learned a lot at Voces, and I’m more confident now.”

Merilan’s experience is exactly what ESL Instructor and Program Assistant Jamie Hsieh-Lesman hopes her students take away from the classes. She encourages students to be proud of who they are and where they come from, and lets them know that it’s okay to make mistakes.

“For me, teaching ESL is not about the language,” she said. “I think it’s about the confidence that you project to the outside world. And so when they step out into the community, they don’t feel like they are weak or they are different.”

Voces offers four levels of classes, each level consisting of three 12-week sessions. Classes meet twice a week, and students – whose first languages are typically Burmese, Japanese or Spanish – can choose morning or evening classes. Many go on to achieve or improve employment, or like Merilan, choose to continue their education, said Jacqueline Denoyer, Language Access Manager at Voces.

“People come through the program and then they’re able to communicate and be self-sufficient,” she said. “It’s very empowering.”

#ChangeTheStory in Income/Financial Stability

ALICE households aren’t looking for handouts. They’re looking for support systems and services that allow them to build their own pathways to financial strength. To that end, United Way set two priorities for its Income focus area: stable and affordable housing; and workforce and income supports for ALICE individuals.

Currently, United Way funds 21 education programs, investing more than $1.17 million annually in strategic grants. [See all of United Way BCKR’s investments, partnerships and collaborations here.]

Here is a snapshot of results from United Way programs and investments in 2017:
• 381 individuals participated in workforce development-skill training programs.
• 300 of those individuals completed programs that helped them earn a workforce credential. More than a third of them used their credentials to compete for higher-paying jobs.
• 61% of multi-racial working individuals who earned credentials gained higher wages and earned income.

United Way BCKR continues to fight for the financial stability of every person in our region. Check out our Income video to learn more about our work in this area.

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We’re celebrating Impact Week! Discover how your United Way is tackling the toughest challenges in our regional community. Here are links to other Impact Week information:

Our Impact – a comprehensive data report on United Way investments and results.
Delivering Results, Changing Lives – an overview of what’s ahead for Impact Week.
Ensuring a Safety Net – helping those in crisis get back on their feet.

Tomorrow: Hope Through Education