Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre first got involved with Laguna Beach’s day labor center by dropping off day-old bread, their joint b’nai mitzvah project in 2010. The siblings next raised $3,000 to pay for installation of a water fountain at the center, a need identified by the workers. Each Christmas since, the teens raised funds to purchase gifts for the workers’ children, delivering scores of presents to garages and apartments jam-packed with several families.
“I have a connection with these guys; I know them on a personal level,” said 16-year-old Aaron, who has grown up in Laguna.
This summer, the benefactors went a step further. They spent an hour three times a week at the center under a sycamore tree in Laguna Canyon teaching English at a picnic table. Once a friend accompanied them. And despite the dust and constant interruptions from prospective employers, the attentive adult students continued their lessons and completed an entire English as a second language textbook.
“The amount of progress they’ve made is so incredible,” said Aaron, pleased he can now better converse with the men twice his age and more.
The teens finished off their informal session this past Tuesday with a graduation ceremony, complete with cake and certificates. “We wanted to acknowledge the workers’ accomplishments,” said Annee Della Donna, the teens’ mother, who cut the cake but was barred from participating in the out-of-door classes while waiting for her children.
“They did a great job,” agreed Irma Ronses, who coordinates job assignments at the day labor center, established in 1997 and run at the city’s request by the South County Cross Cultural Council. The workers wish the teens could continue, she said.
The council’s other ardent volunteers come from the Laguna Food Pantry, who bring groceries almost daily, Ronses said. Council supporters also teach English as a second language classes to parents of Evenstart preschoolers at Laguna’s Boys and Girls Club. In years past, the day labor center has also served as a target of anti-immigrant protests.
“Because many of the workers were illiterate even in Spanish, they started with a picture dictionary,” the kids’ mother explained. “Sometimes there would be five guys, and sometimes 25 huddled around the table hanging onto every word.”
The youngsters conversational teaching style was embraced by the workers compared to an earlier teaching attempt by adults, Ronses said.
“It was evident they desperately wanted to learn English. Often, workers would show up for a class even when they were not there looking for work,” Donna said.
For Aaron, the experience was both gratifying and eye opening. For instance, he said, the vocabulary of some workers improved enough that they could ask for a hard hat on a job or a different type of tool. “The language barrier is not as significant and it makes a huge difference for them,” Aaron said.
He’s also gained insights that allow him to dismiss fear-provoking stereotypes. He learned, for instance, that workers choose metal-sheathed teeth not to evoke an intimidating persona but because of affordability.
“I know they’re great people,” Aaron said.
It seems clear the workers embrace their youthful teachers as well. “When my kids see one of their guys working in town, they always shout ‘hello’ and are greeted the same,” said Donna.
Next week Aaron, a junior, and Shira, 15, a sophomore, forego their open-air classroom for desks at Laguna Beach High School.
Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre, second and third from right, taught English to workers at the day laborer center this summer.