13:22 PM

The Literacy Initiative Today (LIFT) Program Provides Free Classes to UST Employees

Learning a new language in a new country is challenging. Just ask employees of the University of St. Thomas Food Service or Facilities Operations, who have participated in an English as a second language program called LIFT or Literacy Initiative for Today. Now offered on campus at 3815 Mt. Vernon through the Center for Cultural Interchange, the program has partnered with UST since 1991 when it was founded by two St. Thomas students – Henry Morin and Michael Leavitt ’88. 

UST ESL Success Stories are Many

Currently, four UST team members, who are refugees from Venezuela and work in the cafeteria, take ESL classes.

"We partner with Prestige Temp Agency," Director of Dining Services Sean Manbode said, "to offset the labor shortage that existed when UST first took the food service contract over from Aramark in January 2020. And that is how we came to hire refugees from Venezuela. We also had several of our current team members L to R front row: Taydee Nava Ochoa, Paola Pineda, Susanna Arroyo, Maria Bustos, Karen Perez; L to R back row: Sean Manbode, dining services director, Ivonne Vega, Jorge Robortella, Chef Felix Avila with Chief H.E. Jenkins, AVP of Dining and Auxiliary Servicesfrom Mexico and Honduras participate in the LIFT Program."

Manbode touts many of the program's benefits for the employee and UST.

"The biggest benefit I hear is the ability to communicate with other team members and customers who don't speak Spanish,” he said. “Also, when we have catering events, it's beneficial for the staff to answer any service-related questions from the guests attending the event. In addition, these team members have younger children at home, and by learning to speak English, they can assist their kids with the homework and have a general conversation about what they learned at school. From a teacher's perspective, I imagine it would help build a better relationship with the parents of the students."

In addition to the cafeteria workers, Facility Operations staff member Horacio Sosa and his wife, and Rosa Martinez in Housekeeping are other employees who have benefitted from the LIFT program. ESL is free for UST employees.

LIFT Founded by UST Students

LIFT founders Morin and Leavitt saw the need for people to learn English inside the inner loop area. These concerned students united their efforts with the University's Office of Volunteer Opportunities under the leadership of staffer Ellie Collier. The program began with three volunteer tutors and 20 learners. By mid-year, it grew to 11 volunteer tutors and more than 40 learners.

Today, the LIFT Program, which averages 350-400 students per year, is still affiliated with the University of St. Thomas under the leadership of Arthur Ortiz, Vice President for Enrollment Services and Student Engagement, with the assistance of staffer Patty Amaya who serves as the liaison for UST and the students. UST dedicated a room to Leavitt, who passed away young, in the former OVO offices on the second floor of Crooker Center, which now houses the Office of International Student and Scholar Services.

"I enjoy being a part of this outreach program that impacts the quality of life by helping others learn English,” Amaya said.

 “LIFT provides a vital service which directly changes the trajectory of many lives. Their mission and good work reinforces UST’s mission to serve our community and to recognize the dignity of each and every person,” Ortiz said.

LIFT Program Director David Godwin "A Champion for Literacy" Carries the Torch

UST's LIFT Program is directed by "Houston Hero David Godwin," who the Houston Chronicle reporter Andrew Dansby called "A Champion for Literacy" in a 2016 article, the year the program celebrated its 25th anniversary.

"The majority of the ESL clients are Spanish speakers," Godwin said, "however, the ESL program is open to people of all languages. Students are 70% female. We have a large Venezuelan and Cuban population due to the unrest in those countries.

"The LIFT Program helps people assimilate into our society," Godwin says. "We help working people who want to make a better life for themselves and their children. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the students seek the same thing: initially, an introductory education in English, followed by deeper levels of study. The LIFT program has evolved and expanded to include eight levels of English instruction that range from beginner to advanced."

Volunteer Opportunities for Tutors

Volunteer tutors come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from students to professionals, dedicated to teaching and working with learners.  To volunteer, email David Godwin at dgodwin977@aol.com.