Angelica Ibarra will always remember the strawberry fields of Plant City. • They are an important part of her past. • Coming to America from her native Mexico, she learned at an early age that she had to follow the crops of strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, citrus and apples instead of following only the lesson plans. Her favorite Amelia Bedelia books and education were always put aside. • "You have to learn to leave everything," Ibarra said. "Growing up as a migrant you can't attach yourself to a teacher or a friend. You don't get attached to a home because you always have to leave. Unless you've gone through it you wouldn't understand." • Ibarra brings that understanding to the Hispanic adults and children she works with every day as the executive director of the Family Literacy Academy of Tampa Bay in Plant City, but going from field hand to giving people a hand up proved challenging for the 42-year-old.
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Year after year, Ibarra tried to make up for lost work at school. Finally, in seventh grade, she submitted to her father's wishes and dropped out.
By age 15, she ran away from home and became the mother of two children. She eventually would return to the fields to work for many more exhausting years.
In her late 20s, she decided to set a different course for herself. Despite a lack of encouragement from her father, she enrolled in a GED program.
"I saw it as the only way I could improve my life," Ibarra said.
Starting down the education path changed her, and so did a woman named Sandy Smith, a teacher who never tired of telling Ibarra she could succeed.
"It all goes back to my teacher," Ibarra said. "Even in my 20s, I still needed someone to tell me I could do it."
Once Ibarra got her GED, Smith raised the bar of learning once again. She suggested that Ibarra enroll in Hillsborough Community College. All the while she continued to mentor and guide her, sometimes reading over her assignments.
After completing her studies at HCC, Ibarra transferred to the University of South Florida and received a bachelor's degree in international studies.
Her entire family attended the commencement ceremony, including her father, who had once opposed her education. With tears in his eyes, he told her he was so proud of her.
Ibarra soon will attend another important commencement. This time it will be to congratulate her two older children as they receive degrees from the University of South Florida.
She is the mother of son Ernesto, daughter Yesenia and another younger daughter, Esperanza. Both Ernesto and Yesenia are in their final semesters at USF.
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After she received her college degree, Ibarra had another thought: advocating for literacy and education. She began the Family Literacy Academy of Tampa Bay in 2003 and spent two years earning a certificate in nonprofit management at the University of Tampa.
When it first began, the nonprofit organization targeted Hispanic families needing assistance in the West Tampa area.
Last September Ibarra moved the academy to Trinity United Methodist Church in Plant City, drawing adult students who long to learn English.
The organization, however, seeks to provide learning for the entire family, with programs for adults and children. It also offers PACT (Parent and Child Together Time), a program that encourages parents to read to their children.
While a small staff teaches both age groups, high school students also have stepped in at times to earn community service hours.
In addition to her administrative duties, Ibarra also tutors after school and teaches the parenting classes, where she reminds parents that they are their child's first and most important teacher.
"My goal is to provide a community center where children and families can come and obtain an array of services, both educational and community resources," Ibarra said. "I don't believe in just doing things for people. I want to provide them with the tools."
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As International Literacy Day is celebrated Saturday, the academy also can celebrate its own success. This year, after serving 33 children and 32 parents, it scored a "B" grade on a report card compiled by the University of Miami Education Evaluation Team from the school's Department of Teaching and Learning.
The report also showed gains in both the literacy levels of children and parents.
Such results have helped the academy earn support from a number of groups, including the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which held a celebration at the academy Thursday.
And yet beyond all the graphs and statistics, the real success stories can speak for themselves.
Mariana Macias, 35, met Ibarra seven years ago. When Macias came to the academy, she longed to converse with her children's teachers during conferences without feeling embarrassed.
As an adult learning English, she found the language had its challenges. She laughs a little remembering how hard it was to say words like "refrigerator" and knowing the difference between "share" and "chair."
Today, she is fluent in English. Thanks to Ibarra's encouragement she also received her GED, and later even taught a basic computer skills class to give back something to the academy that had empowered her.
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Rosibel Velasco, 29, from Mexico is a recent example of a student who began with basic literary skills. Her most recent test results indicated she had advanced three levels in one year.
Although she is not yet fluent in English, she has mastered a strong vocabulary base and continues to excel with the patient help of her teacher, Jenny Bair. In Spanish, she talked about how she began pursuing her dream of learning English at the academy, a 15-minute walk from her home.
"In the class I'm always holding my hand up in the air asking Jenny to pronounce the words again," Velasco said. "While I walk home I repeat the words over and over out loud."
Velasco reads the newspaper out loud, and during her lunch breaks she reads children's books to her daughter.
"At home I get my book out and write out paragraphs in English," Velasco said. "Sometimes it may be as late as 2 a.m., and sometimes I even cry from the frustration.
"If I don't know a word I write it down and bring it back to class to show Jenny."
Even with all the hard work, at one point during the year she gave up and stopped coming to the classes. Ibarra called and eventually persuaded her to return.
"Here we don't give up on anyone," Ibarra says with a smile.
It's a lesson she learned long ago when she stepped out of the fields and into the classroom of Sandy Smith.
Belinda Kramer can be reached at [email protected]