Martin Loa is a success story! He had a mission to further himself by getting an education and becoming a role model and mentor in his family. Growing up, Martin did not necessarily have stability. Coming from a family of migrant farm workers, he attended more than 10 different elementary schools from kindergarten through 5th grade. While in school, he loved to read. Though he did not face a literacy challenge, he suffered from inconsistency in the way he was taught in school. Martin remembers that he was retained in the third grade, giving way to his inconsistent education, even though he was really good in math. At this point of his education, one specific teacher that made a difference in his life was Ms. Evert, his third grade teacher.
Evert convinced him to start using math books to develop his skills and pushing his limits. By the end of 3rd grade he was doing 8th grade math! “She was the one that really helped me because my reading was not that great, but I was able to do word problems,” says Martin.
His parents always encouraged him to get an education, but were not actively involved in his day-to-day learning experience. “They [his parents] relied on teachers to educate us... I don’t have a memory of them doing homework with us,” Martin says. He feels that because his grandmother and mother did not learn how to read or write, they live a sad life not being able to communicate and are dependent on others. He says that not knowing how to read can be a major downfall. Dependence is a big issue when you are functionally illiterate.
At a young age Martin knew that he wanted to do and be better in life, to improve his life and his family’s life. He wanted to improve his literacy, and not be a migrant worker or rely on manual labor to survive. In his family he is the only one out of nine children to graduate from college. He knew that to get ahead he needed to improve his literacy skills. This tenacious attitude led him to be a 5th grade teacher and, through his career, was able to take steps to not only become a leader in our community, but also give back.
Martin became aware of the literacy crisis in Houston early in his career: “I started as a 5th grade teacher, and what I was noticing when I was speaking to my parents is that they had a lack of communication in both English and in written form. So, what we tried to do was get them involved in parenting classes where they were teaching them ESL and then I discovered adult literacy.” Martin explains that after he found out about adult literacy programs, he volunteered to teach adults at night through the school. He discovered that most of his adult students were not learning English because they had not gone to school in their own countries.
He also believes that this is a big issue in our community because there is a need to ‘survive’ even at the expense of education. “People focus on jobs and not necessarily their education… and what we need to do is figure out how to do both at the same time to improve their [functionally illiterate adults in our community] economic [situation],” says Martin. Poverty, he says, is a direct contribution to low literacy because of the limited opportunities one has not being able to read. There is also no career ladders when you can’t read or write.
In efforts to get parents more involved with teaching their children how to read, Martin believes developing family literacy programs is a solution to the problem. “Parents cannot teach their children if they don’t know how to do it. I think they want to but they don’t know how,” he says. The program would welcome both children and their parents to come together to learn. The model would have students and parents in separate classes but at the end come together to do an activity on the day’s lesson.
While he doesn’t have his own children, he does mentor and give advice to his nephews and nieces about continuing their education and the importance of literacy. Today, none of his family members are involved in migrant farm work, which is a feat within itself. He accomplished his goal of becoming a professional and then motivated his sisters to get their GED’s. Now, they all work in offices and he is the Vice President of Program Services for the Houston Center for Literacy which allows him to work with adults to help them improve their literacy skills to have a better life. “ I think that as you push for great literacy, it can impact generation to generation because now I have nephews and nieces that have graduated from college that are teaching, doing web design and a whole bunch of other stuff!” he says.
Martin feels that to help children, you need to help their parents first. He says, “Parents are the ones that need the help to instill that literacy into the children. Children look up to their parents.”
The Houston Center for Literacy is a partner of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation and strives to end the literacy crisis in Houston by providing ESL and other programs to members of the Houston community.