English in Action: 20 years of building bonds

Colleen O’Neil
Tutors Kim Chang (right) and Matt Abrahamson (back) work on pronunciation with Alicia Arreola at English in Action's open hours on a Thursday night in El Jebel. English in Action is celebrating its 20th anniversary this evening.
Colleen O’Neil/Post Independent |


Tonight’s event is from 5-7 p.m. at the Wyly Art Center in Basalt. A $10 suggested donation includes drinks and appetizers.

To become a student or a volunteer, call English in Action at 970-963-9200.


Para llegar a ser un estudiante, teléfono 970-963-9200.

This week, English in Action, an English-learning program for immigrants to the Roaring Fork Valley, is celebrating its 20th year with a celebration tonight in Basalt.

It seeks to strengthen the community by helping adults to read, write and speak English. For the program’s 200 adult students, learning English means gaining the ability to get better jobs, get medical help when children are sick, manage their daily lives and become more engaged in the community.

Many students have had great success with the program. Adrianna Cabrera Torres, for example, who will be recognized at tonight’s event, has been studying English for more than 10 years and has landed a job as a bank teller. Now, to give back to the community and the program that has helped her succeed, she also tutors two students herself.

And therein lies the program’s primary service: one-on-one tutoring.

“The beauty of our program,” says executive director Lara Beaulieu, “is that learning English really brings people together who might not otherwise have become friends.”

Here’s how it happened:

In the 1980s, an influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America settled in the valley, many taking jobs in the service and construction industries. Some of them struggled to learn English, and the community became divided between native English speakers and those who didn’t know the language.

In 1994, the Basalt Regional Library launched the Adult Literacy Program, which served a few dozen one-on-one tutoring pairs who focused on English learning. By 2005, the number of pairs had grown to more than 60, and the program could no longer be housed within the library’s then-limited space. It spun off from the library and, under the direction of founder Julie Fox-Rubin, became “English In Action.”

In 2008, English in Action became a fully independent nonprofit and hired Beaulieu as executive director. The organization now has a primary office in El Jebel and a satellite office in the Pitkin County Library in Aspen.

Here’s how it works:

For an hour a week, student-tutor pairs meet in a variety of locations, including the office in El Jebel, the library in Basalt and the library in Aspen.

When they’re paired with a tutor, students are committed to six months of class, but some tutoring pairs have been together for nearly 10 years. They develop close friendships and take their learning outside the classroom to have conversations in restaurants or their own homes.

People like Dehisy Candanedo rely on this program to ease their transition into the United States. When Candanedo lived in Mexico, she was an attorney specializing in labor law and customs enforcement. Four years ago, she moved to the valley and got a job as a housekeeper in Aspen, since her certifications were invalid here.

Candanedo started taking English classes at Colorado Mountain College. Then, after finding out about English in Action, she got on the wait list for a tutor. Two years later, she was matched up with Leah Perkins, a volunteer from Glenwood Springs.

English in Action “is magnificent,” Candanedo said. “I need to learn English for my job, for my son and for my family.”

Candanedo and Perkins have been working together for six months. They’ve had dinner at Perkins’ house, and Candanedo is now close with Perkins’ 2-year-old daughter.

“I think this program is awesome,” Perkins said. “I went to my first fiesta, and I signed up to teach right after my daughter was born.”

Because the wait list for individual tutoring is so long, a few longtime students came up with the idea to hold open teaching hours. At the office in El Jebel, tutors hold small-group class sessions from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wait-listed or time-crunched students can attend these sessions to jump-start their learning.

Kim Chang, a Panamanian by birth who lives in Basalt, was one of the program’s original board members. She has been teaching for 11 years.

“I love it,” she said at an open-hours session last week. “When they get it, and they get that spark, it’s perfect.” That evening, Chang was teaching new student Alicia Arreola how to pronounce the “s” sound in English. Arreola, originally from Mexico, has lived in the valley for 13 years. One of her neighbors, a longtime student, referred her to English in Action. Arreola laughed and smiled gamely while she worked with Chang.

English in Action also sponsors leadership and community building activities. Those involved take field trips to the Aspen Art Museum, go to Theater Aspen events, snowshoe on Aspen Mountain and throw a community picnic every year.

“We want adults to have the opportunity to experience everything this area has to offer,” Beaulieu said.

Last year, 270 students participated. All were adults, mainly from Mexico or South America. They were taught by 165 volunteer tutors, who donated 3,400 hours of time, and almost all students showed improvements in oral, reading and writing skills after a year.

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