Watch CBS News

Jefferson Award: Program bridges language barriers in Oakland's Fruitvale District

Program bridges language barriers in Oakland's Fruitvale District
Program bridges language barriers in Oakland's Fruitvale District 04:02

OAKLAND -- An East Bay woman helps make sure that new immigrants with no other educational opportunity can learn beginner English in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood.

Corinna Bekiers-Sassano is on the move, walking up and down hallways, to make sure the teachers are all ready for class.

She popped her head into one classroom -- "You guys need anything or are you good?"

 "We're good," affirmed the volunteers in the room.

Bekiers-Sassano volunteers at Las Casas English Language Program in Oakland. The all-volunteer program at Cristo Rey de la Salle High School serves 300 adults a year, mostly native Spanish speakers.

Jefferson Award winner Corinna Bekiers-Sassano
Jefferson Award winner Corinna Bekiers-Sassano CBS

Many of them walk, since it's one of the few places in the Fruitvale neighborhood offering low-cost beginner English classes in-person, three nights a week.

They pay only for their textbooks. Nine of 10 students come after work. Many have only been in the U.S. two to five years, have little prior education and half of the students earn less than $16,000 a year.

The students' commitment to learn inspires Bekiers-Sassano.

"They just work really, really hard after they've been working all day," she said.

Bekiers-Sassano volunteers as assistant director with the 21-year-old Las Casas program that started in 2002 by a Dominican sister of Mission San Jose.

Bekiers-Sassano herself came from Germany as a child and English was her second language. Her mother's passing, years later, inspired Bekiers-Sassano's volunteer work.

"Going through her things, I'd discovered documents where she'd gone through an ESL program, so I thought, 'Hmm, maybe that's what I want to do," she reflected.

For more than a decade, Bekiers-Sassano has gone above and beyond in a variety of areas, ranging from teaching to currently revamping the computer literacy program. She's been providing teacher mentorship and training for its 40 volunteers.

"My background is in recreational therapy, so I think everything should be fun when you learn"  Bekiers-Sassano said.

Matthew Stewart says Bekiers-Sassano has plugged him in to creative teaching approaches.

"Corinna is pure positivity," Stewart said. "She never ceases to help you find ways to give you resources, new ideas, things to try in the classroom.

For Gerson Soliz, the lessons stick, and give him a foundation for his future.

"Nine months ago, I spoke a little bit English, but right now, my English is a little more comfortable," Soliz said.

Students who graduate from the program often return and help others apply to ESL classes at community college or adult school to continue their education.

"And they are so grateful - I'm going to cry now - for all the teachers that are here, and that's what keeps me going, coming here, night after night after night," Bekiers-Sassano said.              

So for her commitment in supporting student learning and volunteer teaching at Las Casas English Language Program, this week's Jefferson Award in Bay Area goes to Corinna Bekiers-Sassano.         

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.