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Sandra Gutierrez, the award-winning educator and founder of Abriendo Puertas, remembers the days when it was common to put the non-English-speaking students at the back of the class and have them color all day because they couldn’t understand the teachers.
Now, the NGO she directs since 2007 tries to make sure Latino families with young children are fully aware of their rights and the resources they are entitled to just by living in the U.S. Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors) bills itself as the nation’s first comprehensive training program for Latino parents of children up to 5 years old.
Children learn what we as parents teach them. Kids are a reflection of us. The classes helped me to be an advocate for my child and other children.
“Parents are the unsung heroes of society. We should honor them and their power to affect change in the future of our children’s lives,” she told Fox News Latino.
Gutierrez, 61, was named by the White House as a Cesar E. Chavez Champion of Change last year, and this month she received the 2015 Irvine Foundation Leadership Award. But although proud of her accomplishments, she is reticent to take all the credit. She said Abriendo was developed as a collective with hundreds of parents as leaders in their families.
“There’s a hunger for the information we’re giving to Latino parents. We tell them that 90 percent of brain development is made in the first five years of a child’s life. We know that Latino parents value education above all else,” Gutierrez said, explaining that all sessions are offered in Spanish.
Launched in 2007 as a pilot program, Abriendo Puertas is designed to offer (or as Gutierrez says, “promise,’) that in 10 sessions, at two hours each, parents will learn fun ways of helping their children prepare for pre-school and the most important lesson of all, that education doesn’t start at kindergarten.
The center currently serves 12,000 people in L.A. County.
“Children learn what we as parents teach them. Kids are a reflection of us. The classes helped me to be an advocate for my child and other children,” said Marina Martinez, a mother of a 4-year-old who attends the Abriendo program.
Both parents and children are taken into account, Gutierrez said, providing a safe environment for parents to talk about real issues. “We work to include cultural beliefs, but also examine myths versus realities,” she said.
“For example,” she explained, “Latino families honor the elderly and parents, which is wonderful and an important aspect of the community. On the other hand, ideals about gender such as ‘boys shouldn’t cry’ or ‘girls should be seen, but not heard.’ We have open dialogue about those is a supported place,” said Gutierrez, who was born in El Salvador and migrated to Los Angeles when she was 8.
She said they also discredit the notion that it’s bad for parents to speak to their children in Spanish. “That’s simply not true,” she told FNL. “It’s beneficial to promote language whatever it may be.”
“Abriendo focuses on parents who are Spanish-speaking and 100 percent low income within federal poverty guidelines. They’re the working poor and, like all parents, they want better for their children than they had themselves,” she said.
Edelina Pena, the mother of a 2-year old boy, told FOX News Latino she loved the classes because “every single lesson” had a powerful message. “I am more conscious and patient with what I do on a daily basis. Our facilitator explained everything so well and is so motivating that it motivates us to make changes in our lives.”
Since most of these parents didn’t grow up in the U.S., a good number of them and are losing out on the resources nearly every American town has to offer them – and their children.
Diane Santos, a mother of two daughters, ages 5 and 3 said, “After taking the Abriendo Puertas classes, I took my children to the library. I had never taken them before because I was afraid that they would not behave. Before the classes, I did not even know that the library had a children’s section!”