12/01/2022 01:00 AM By Lisa Anderson
Focus on Literacy
Yamila Acosta
Yamila Acosta
Story by Taylor Strickland • Photos by Joshua Jacobs


Cuban Immigrant Builds ESOL Program with Tough Love

“I was introduced to the Literary Council, because they needed a part-time data entry person,” shares Yamila Acosta, Director of Programs and Services for the Marion County Literacy Council. “I started here April 2013.”

“Honestly, I didn’t start getting really into it until later on,” Yamila confesses. The Literary Council found itself overwhelmed by the demands of its many programs, which prompted a supervisor to reach out and ask Yamila to take over the ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) program. “That’s when I was sucked in because of my background.

“I was born in Cuba,” Yamila says. “I came to the United States when I was 10 months old. My parents are immigrants; I’m an immigrant–raised in this country, went to school in this country. I always had my culture present. At home, we had to speak Spanish. When we were with our friends and when we were in school, we spoke English. That experience really opened a whole new world for me to be able to do what I do today.”

Yamila feels a kinship with her ESOL students, as she sees her own life echoed in the stories they share. “This was my childhood. I’m that kid that was translating everything the teacher was saying to my parents, because they didn’t understand.

“I knew what these adults in the program were actually feeling,” Yamila explains. “It was easy for me to understand what they needed. I think that’s what makes it work, because I have connected with my students on that level.

“ESOL grew to be our biggest program. At the time, we only had about 50 or so students. I took it to another level, because I felt so close to it.” Yamila briefly left the Literacy Council in 2015 to cope with her father’s passing. “I came back just as a volunteer. I couldn’t stay away.”

After Yamila made her prodigal return, she was dismayed to find that the ESOL program was gone. “No one spoke the language,” she laments. “If you don’t have someone who speaks the language, you can’t connect to those students. It was my mission to bring that back up, and I did.”

Yamila’s former students were eager to resume their lessons. “We grew the program again. We’re now looking at close to 300 students in that program.

“I want to say that was my baby,” Yamila says fondly. “It’s nice to be able to help someone believe in themselves, because that’s the first step. We believe in our students–even on the days that they don’t believe in themselves.”

Tough Love

Holding adults accountable is not always easy, but Yamila is more than equipped to deal with the challenge. “I don’t want to say it takes a special kind of person,” she says sheepishly. “It sounds like I’m showing off, but it’s true. I have a strong personality.

“I do give tough love,” Yamila laughs. “I’m a strong believer in tough love when you’re dealing with adults. You really have to challenge them in that way, but once they feel comfortable and they realize that someone is backing them up, they get that courage and that will to say, ‘I want to do this.’”

Though firm, Yamila is always encouraging. “I never tell a student no, that they can’t come back if they’ve missed a session. I tell them, ‘You’re always welcome, because maybe that wasn’t your time. What did you learn? What are you going to do different?’

“I don’t ever want anyone to say they walked into the Literary Council and felt like they were nothing. I want them to feel like we’ve known them their entire lives,” Yamila says. It’s an effect she has worked hard to achieve. “That’s why we have an open-door policy. Anybody can come to my office at any time. I don’t want to be the director that’s in the office away from everybody.”

Thankfully, Yamila has found a reliable form of support: her children. “My kids have been coming here since they were small. This is a way of showing them it’s great to be bilingual, because it gives you the opportunity to help more people. It’s really grown on them. They love it.

“It’s funny, I would bring them here during the summer, and now my 26-year-old is actually the young lady you see at the front.” Yamila smiles.

Doing More

Yamila only recently became director in July 2022. “It feels nice to be able to come as entry personnel and gradually work through all the levels,” she says. “I sit as the director of this amazing place that gave me the opportunity to help so many people. Now, I just want to do more.

“It’s challenging, you know? We’re a small non-profit. We only have two paid employees right now. We have an amazing board of directors that always [has] our back, but we do all of this with volunteers.”

As far as the future goes, Yamila is happy right where she is. “The day that I dread coming in, then that is the day I know I have to move on and do something else. As of right now, I still love this place. We’re still growing, and I think we have the potential to be so much bigger.”
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