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Cedar Falls couple meets family who benefit from donation to Hawkeye's Family Literacy Program

Cedar Falls couple meets family who benefit from donation to Hawkeye's Family Literacy Program

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Maung Kyi's family fled from Burma to Thailand when soldiers began to terrorize ethnic minorities in their village. Kyi grew up with nothing. Now, in his early 30s, Kyi has worked his way up to a supervisor position at Tyson Foods, completed the HCC Hospitality I-BEST program, reached advanced English literacy level classes and has earned his workplace technology certificate. This spring he will begin transition courses for college credits at Hawkeye’s main campus. He is married and has a 10-month-old boy.

I had the opportunity to sit down with the Kyi family, and Willard and Kay Jenkins, who established a $15,000 endowment for the Family Literacy Program through Hawkeye. Kyi was able to begin an entire new life with a lot of help from the program and the staff, who he said have become like his family in the U.S. 

Kyi is only one of hundreds of other students who land in Waterloo from treacherous parts of the world and enroll in the Family Literacy Program to help them adapt and succeed in this culture. My favorite part of my job is meeting people like Kyi and others from around the world. We get a chance to hear their stories of their family, culture, good and bad times, and feel more unified as world citizens. 

WATERLOO – Maung Kyi was in his early 20s when he arrived in Waterloo 10 years ago. He knew little English and was struggling to find to a job.

His family fled from Burma to Thailand when soldiers began to terrorize ethnic minorities in their village. Kyi grew up with nothing. Now, in his early 30s, Kyi has worked his way up to a supervisor position at Tyson Foods, completed the HCC Hospitality I-BEST program, reached advanced English literacy level classes and has earned his workplace technology certificate. This spring he will begin transition courses for college credits at Hawkeye’s main campus. He is married and has a 10-month-old boy.

“It’s not too late for me. If I don’t give up, I still have time,” he said.

Kyi was able to tell his story last week to Willard and Kay Jenkins of Cedar Falls, who recently established an endowment for Hawkeye Community College’s Family Literacy Program.

Kyi is involved in the program, which launched in 2005. It’s a free program serving families with parents enrolled to receive a high school equivalency diploma or English Language Learner classes. Students like Kyi receive one-on-one assistance from the Van G. Miller Adult Learning Center’s transition specialist. The Family Learning Program is the only one of its kind in Iowa after state and federal funds were cut a decade ago. Generous gifts from Cedar Valley residents and grant money have saved the program.

“We have used local private gifts/grants to sustain the program, including Cedar Valley United Way and the Community Foundation,” said Mary Pat Moore, director of public relations and marketing at Hawkeye. “We chose to keep it … because of the large appeal it has to those that are using it.” Today, more than 270 students are enrolled, along with their 600 children.

Kyi told the Jenkinses stories of his home life in Thailand and his struggle coming to the United States. Staff at the Van G. Miller Adult Learning Center helped him learn English and became a sounding board and support system as he navigated his new life.

“They want me to continue. Every time I have a frustration I come to them because over here I feel like they are my family. If I have anything I’m not really sure about, I come to them,” he said.

Kyi hasn’t missed a day of work in 10 years. His supervisors have had to encourage him to use his earned vacation time. He often can be found serving customers from behind the counter at Mac’s Place Café in the Adult Learning Center.

“It does end up feeling like a family. We feel just as lucky,” said Lindsey Leesman, parent education specialist for the Family Literacy Program. “He is an ambassador for hundreds of students like him.”

Willard and Kay Jenkins of Cedar Falls gave $15,000 to establish the endowment. They were pleased to meet Kyi and his wife, He Dar Wae, and their son, Saul Phaung Ghay Maung Kyi.

“It was thrilling to me,” Kay said through tears. “We all have ideas and things we want to share with people and that makes languages and conversations so important in so many ways. … Understanding comes with language.”

Kyi agrees and wants to pay it forward by becoming an ELL teacher.

“I feel like it’s very important because those people they don’t really speak English. I want them to be able to understand. I want to help them,” he said.

Willard is a retired engineer with Deere & Co., and a former member of the Iowa House of Representatives. He was on the Iowa Work Force Development Board for two years and was involved in the Cedar Falls Rotary Club. Kay was a kindergarten teacher, part of the Family and Children’s Council for 15 years and was involved with the Parent Connection Mentoring Program for at-risk mothers and children.

“It’s Christmas time and every Christmas card we get has the word ‘peace’ on it. If we ever get to peace in the world, it’s going to be like them,” Willard said of the Kyi family. “They come here, they learn about us. Then they talk to their families when they go back and visit,” noting how people from across the world work together in many industries.

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