Growing Up with Abriendo Puertas

This piece accompanies the Teaching Tolerance article "Opening Doors on the Border."

It's hard to sit and just write the story of your life, when you're only 19 and already there are a lot of memories making a never-ending story. To make it short and to the point I'll just write about one episode that changed my entire life.

It started one night in the small neighborhood of Llano Grande, sometimes called a colonia, in Weslaco, Tex., a small town in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. I was about 14 years old, in the 8th grade. My mom, Carmen De Leon, came to me saying that she was going to volunteer in a program called Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors). She explained that Abriendo Puertas is a program that helps teenagers to graduate from high school and to get a better education by attending college or a university. She said she was going to be trained to teach other families about the program, and that she had to give classes at our home.

Our home is not big, but there is a very small house, or casita, on the lot. We used it as a storage room, but when my mom started the classes, that's where we met. It was hot and we did not have air conditioning. There was only one window and we had to run an extension cord to connect a fan and a light. At the beginning, many parents would not show up at La Casita, which is what we named it, because they had kids, and the classes took place on weekends. That did not stop my mom. She let everybody know that they could bring their children to the classes. That was how I got involved.

My mom asked if I could help with the kids. Since they were all neighbors and friends, I said yes, knowing that it was going to be easy. As time went by and the program got more popular in the neighborhood, La Casita was not just used for my mom's classes — it became our own little library, a place for our books, dictionaries and supplies. It was also a place where all my neighbors could go to do their homework.

Every day after school, everybody would gather up at La Casita to do their homework or even learn to speak and write our language (English). Many of those kids were my age, but there were also younger ones who were willing to learn no matter what. Many of the younger kids had trouble learning English so I would teach them a different way, especially to several kids that had just arrived from Mexico.

We called it the "easier way." I would help them pronounce the words and then teach them the difference between saying it and writing it. Other kids had trouble with math or other subjects but we always found a way to make everything easier.

Our classes were not always about studying; we also liked having fun. When we got tired of studying, we would go outside and play futbol (soccer). One knows that as kids get older they tend to want to do things other than homework. That was when I knew I had to keep their attention so that they could keep studying and earning good grades.

I had decided that I would give them little rewards. The prizes were either candies or anything that I could find at the stores when shopping with my mom. I gave them to anybody who was willing to learn and never give up. When report cards arrived, La Casita would get full with everybody showing me their good grades and the improvements they had made. My mom always said pizza parties were the best thing for these occasions. The best part of these rewards, though, were always the smiles on the kids' faces and hearing them say thanks.

"Thanks" is a common word but when one knows that it's coming from the heart this word becomes much more. I never got tired of hearing it. "Thanks" was my motivation to keep helping others in need.

It's easy growing up and having someone by your side pushing you to do well in everything you do. My mom has always been an idol for me; without her I would not be where I am today. It's difficult to learn when your parents do not speak English and you need help with your homework. This is the main reason why I decided to help my mom and at the same time help those kids who were in the same situation that I once faced.

It was not always easy but we managed to get through. Many of us already have graduated and are attending college, while others are at their last years in high school. La Casita was and still is an important part of my life. As I look back, I can truly say it was an honor helping others. I am proud because not only did I help these kids, but at the same time I helped my mom reach her goal of helping others learn. We also gave many parents the time to just sit and learn the many things they could do for their kids, all through the program called Abriendo Puertas. And it really did open doors.

- Brenda Mendez

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