Nearly 20 years ago, Garmenia Carmen Hagewood came to the United States from her home country, Peru. She was 55 and in search of work.
“Like everyone else, I came to work. In my country it’s difficult for us, for people of my age, to find a job,” Carmen said. “So, I came here. My niece helped me to come here, and I found a job at McDonald’s.
She spoke very little English, but that soon changed.
One morning, two men at McDonald’s sat at a table near where Carmen was working in the lobby. One of the men began playing the mandolin. Carmen recognized the song.
“So, I started singing, because I used to sing,” she said. “I started singing that song in Spanish, not in English.”
The men asked her to come sing at their table, but she was in the middle of her shift and said no.
“They called the owner and got permission from the owner!” Carmen still laughs in disbelief.
One of those two customers was Brown Thomas.
“It was love at first sight. I think that’s how you say that,” she said. “I met him, and my life changed.”
He would come to the McDonald’s every morning, and Carmen could see him looking at her. So, one day, she decided to say something.
“I stopped next to him and I said ‘Good morning.’” she said. “He answered and said ‘Good morning,’ and then he just started talking, talking! And I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’ I knew how to say that.”
On their first date, Brown showed up with two dictionaries. One was Spanish to English and the other English to Spanish.
“And we just had a conversation using our dictionaries. Because I didn’t speak English, and he didn’t speak Spanish,” she said, adding that they relied on using hand movements to communicate. “He said, it’s not necessary to speak the same language.”
After that, they were together. The two married in 2003, and Carmen started to learn English with the help of Brown. She even learned to sing in English.
“I used to sing ‘Strangers in the Night’ and a few other songs,” she said.
They had 14 years together before Brown passed away in 2017.
The Next Chapter: Writing Her Future
Without him, Carmen found her English slipping.
“Because, you know, if you don’t practice a language and it’s not your native language, you forget. ... So, I was afraid to forget [English].”
About two years ago, she enrolled in English classes at Glen Cove Library. There, she has studied with multiple tutors and recently was given the chance to use Voxy EnGen as part of the Write Her Future Institute.
“I said ‘yes, yes, I want to!’”
The Write Her Future Institute has allowed Carmen to pick up right where she left off with her English instruction in 2017. In the two to three months since she’s started the program, she has moved from high intermediate to the advanced level.
“Once I started this program, I cannot stop. I really enjoy it. It is entertaining. It is sometimes a little challenge for me. … There are many words that I don’t know, and I have to research and look at the dictionary.”
The program gives her translations in Spanish, which she said helps her figure out the meaning of words she doesn’t understand. With growth in her understanding, she has the ability to better communicate with others.
“I notice I can speak with more confidence,” she said. “And I also notice little by little, because my big problem is to understand—listening and reading comprehension—that since I am doing [Voxy EnGen], each time I understand more and more.”
Carmen’s time on the platform is limited because cataracts cause her eyes to get tired. But she said she loves it because it keeps her brain working, which improves not just her language skills, but her mood.
“I feel good! I feel happy!”
ProLiteracy and Lancôme worked together to develop the Write Her Future Institute. Learn more about the initiative: https://www.proliteracy.org/write-her-future