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A Family Embraces English and Art

By Henry Street Settlement

A mother holds her arm around her son in front of a colorful mural that says, "Welcome," in different languages.

Emilia Melo came to understand quite a bit of English while working nannying and cleaning jobs, but her difficulties speaking the language limited her work options. She struggled over the years to make ends meet for herself and her seven-year-old son, Matias, while still helping her younger siblings go to college back home.

“I didn’t know where I could go,” Emilia says. “I was so sad because of no work.”

In September 2022, after dropping off Matias at his elementary school on the Lower East Side, Emilia was standing outside his school, searching for free English classes on her phone, when Henry Street team members Nertila Koni and Carol Ng approached her with a flyer about the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. “Good morning, would you like to take an English class?” they asked.

“It was like a miracle,” Emilia says.

She began taking ESOL Job Readiness classes at Henry Street in December 2022. “It’s great,” she says, “because at the same time as you learn English, they help you find a job.” After the course, Emilia, like many ESOL students, wanted to keep strengthening her English skills, so she enrolled in Henry Street’s ESOL civics class, which teaches students to more fully participate in their communities. Armed with the knowledge she had acquired in just four months, Emilia successfully landed a full-time job in the cafeteria of her son’s school.

As a parent in the ESOL program, Emilia was also enrolled in the 2-Generation Program, an initiative that connects parents and their children to a range of academic and social-emotional enrichment programs. When Matias told Melinda Ho, the program’s resource coordinator, that he wanted to take Saturday classes like other kids do, Melinda helped enroll him in music, art, and dance classes through Henry Street’s Abrons Arts Center. The mother-son pair also joined salsa class and choir together at Abrons. Enrollment was available through the Settlement’s NYCHA Arts Initiative, which enables residents of public housing to take Abrons group classes for only a $25 registration fee.

“Before, I was so scared to make an appointment. Now, everywhere I go, I don’t have a problem,” Emilia says, adding, “In this [ESOL] office I feel very warm, like a family. I feel trusted, confident, and secure, like I’m not alone.”

Click here to learn more about Henry Street’s English learning programs

Click here to learn more about the NYCHA Arts Initiative at Abrons Arts Center

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