By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Immigrants who step into the Harlem YMCA's New Americans Welcome Center come looking to learn to read, write and speak English, but they often leave with plans for finding a better job, housing or health care.
"There are close to 80 short-term and long-term goals and most people don't know they can have these goals. Their primary focus is to learn English," said Dio Gica, senior director of the New Americans Initiative.
Now, thanks to a $325,000 grant from the New York State Board of Regents and the State Education Department, the center will add a Literacy Zone aimed at improving the high rates of poverty and low rates of literacy and English proficiency in Central Harlem, West Harlem and Washington Heights.
"We recognize there is a need in the community. While the primary focus is to increase literacy, the YMCA also recognizes there are other services people need such as jobs and citizenship help," said Gica.
Last year, roughly 600 people attended English language classes at the New Americans Welcome Center. Because classes run in 12 week cycles, many people attend multiple cycles in their quest to learn the language. In the last two to three years, the waiting list has nearly tripled to over 100 people.
The grant will allow more than 1,000 people to receive services in the coming year, said Gica.
"Literacy is one of the basic building blocks of success, and the Literacy Zones have been extremely effective in laying that foundation for thousands of people. As someone who came to the United States speaking no English, I can personally attest to the enormous benefit of language education," Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said in a statement.
Gica said there will also be a family literacy component to the program, which is one of eight across the city.
"With parents in the classroom, they can impact homework help. The more parents become literate the more kids become literate," said Gica.
"Literacy is the long-term answer to the persistent and complex problems that poverty presents," Councilman Robert Jackson said in a statement.
Gica said he's seen the project impact so many lives that it only makes sense to expand it.
"A lot of our participants come back every cycle and are here for two to three years. We develop personal relationships and they trust us more and are able to say I want these goals for my family," said Gica. "Before, they couldn't articulate that."
Services can be obtained at the Harlem Y New Americans Welcome Center at 2627 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. and the Harlem Y Branch at 180 West 135th St.