Learn Tampa Bay, a local nonprofit, which provides educational services to the Hispanic community, hopes to remain open through the school year.
“I’d like to. I prefer to. I’d rather. I’d like to. I prefer to. I’d rather.”
Cathy Stein and her student, Maria Castillo, repeat the phrases in unison. Stein, a teacher at Learn Tampa Bay in Plant City, is trying to help the mother of two understand some of the nuances of the English language.
Castillo has been taking adult education courses at Learn Tampa Bay, located at 504 E. Baker St., for nearly two years. The nonprofit organization provides early childhood development courses and tutoring programs for children, as well as adult literacy and parenting classes to the Hispanic community in Plant City and its surrounding areas.
“This program helps me (learn) reading and writing and comprehension,” Castillo said. “I come here because I want to learn how to speak and communicate to help my daughter with her homework.”
It’s a family affair. While her daughter, Evelyn, is at school, Castillo and her 4-year-old son, Sebastian, take classes at Learn Tampa Bay.
When Sebastian started, his reading and vocabulary skills were more than a year below where they should have been.
Now, as he prepares to start kindergarten, he’ll be almost two years ahead.
But Learn Tampa Bay’s mission — started by founder Angelica Ibarra – needs support. Ibarra said the nonprofit is in dire need of funding. Learn Tampa Bay needs $45,000 to remain open through the school year. With current funds, the nonprofit may only be able to stay open until April.
With education as Ibarra’s top priority, she hopes the Plant City community will continue to support her growing mission.
Ibarra, 46, came to the United States with her family from Sinaloa, a coastal state on the Gulf of California in
Mexico, in 1977.
She was part of a family of farmers, but Sinaloa had no work for them.
“We didn’t have anything,” Ibarra said. “It was a struggle just to feed the family.”
They sought a better life in Edinburg, a south Texas border town in the lower Rio Grande Valley. There, Ibarra’s mother, father and two older brothers farmed onions and watermelon. Ibarra stayed home to watch her four younger siblings.
Life was better there, but not by much.
The family eventually relocated to the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World. They’d work until strawberry season was over, and Ibarra joined her family in the fields.
In April, the family would head to Georgia and the Carolinas to pick onions for a month or two, and then to Ohio to pick cucumbers. Ibarra repeated the annual cycle until her mid-20s.
“When we come here as immigrants, we come thinking we’re going to work,” Ibarra said. “We have to work to survive. Education is not the priority for us.”
Once Ibarra became a mother herself, she saw she needed to do more, for both herself and her children. She got her GED, attended Hillsborough Community College and went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in international studies. Educating others quickly became her passion.
Since 2003, she has been committed to providing educational services to the Hispanic community, first in Tampa, then relocating back to Plant City in 2011.
In 2014, Learn Tampa Bay was born. Since then, Ibarra has dedicated herself to helping families through many of the same struggles she faced, all while making education a priority.
Migrant families make up about 25% of Learn Tampa Bay’s clientele, but the need for education extends into Plant City’s growing Hispanic population — nearly one third of all residents, according to the United States Census Bureau.
“Part of what we do is changing their way of thinking,” Ibarra said. “Education is the door to more opportunities. The heart of what we do is the family, parent involvement. We focus a lot on the little ones (and) getting them ready for kindergarten. The best way to do that is by supporting the parents. If the parents don’t know how to help the kids, if they can’t support them, then how can they help them?”
STAYING THE COURSE
Stein thinks the family aspect of Learn Tampa Bay makes it an ideal program and one of Plant City’s invaluable assets.
The nonprofit volunteers try to teach parents the importance of going to conferences and volunteering in their children’s schools and setting goals for their children’s future. The goal is to provide support, structure and education.
“It’s like the best kept secret in Plant City,” Stein said. “And it shouldn’t be.”
The nonprofit is primarily funded through foundations and corporations, including The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Dollar General Literacy Foundation, the Tampa Bay Rays Foundation and Suncoast Federal Credit Union.
The annual operating budget is roughly $170,000, mostly going to staff salary and occupancy costs.
Ibarra hates talking about or asking for money — she’d rather focus on educating families. She does, however, reluctantly accept the hard truth that she needs to discuss it.
In addition to the necessary $45,000 needed to stay open through the school year, Ibarra hopes that an additional $35,000 can be raised to offer a summer program.
For her, keeping the program going is not just a desire, but a necessity.
“You have people here that are our participants who are hard working people, but they don’t understand that through education you can really change your life,” Ibarra said. “Sometimes, even, parents don’t think their kids will make it through high school. It’s not discussed at home. There are no plans.”
Ibarra is currently working to get the funding she needs to keep the doors open by applying for grants and organizing fundraising events.
Learn Tampa Bay will host a wine tasting at the John R. Trinkle Center at Hillsborough Community College on Friday, March 31. The nonprofit is also seeking more volunteers for the tutoring programs and fundraisers.
“If we don’t help those in our community, what does it say about us?” Ibarra said. “Investing in the children is one of the most important things. We should invest in them. Our program has come together because of the community.”
Castillo knows this to be true. She credits much of her son’s progress to the classes he takes at Learn Tampa Bay, as well as the assistance and guidance she gets from Stein.
Stein uses children books in her lessons. Together, she and Castillo read through passages from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web in a small, dimly lit classroom.
“There’s so much vocabulary, a lot of repetition and pictures,” Stein said. “They take these books home to their family, and it creates a cycle of learning. These parents are setting a wonderful example for their children of the importance of education.”
For Castillo, she wants to show her own children — and the next generations — that education will pave the way to continued success.
“Even though I’d like to stay home,” Castillo said, “I prefer to go to school.”
Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected].