Agustina Lopez learned to speak English at a small Catholic church in Pierson.
The 48-year-old mother of five is among the hundreds of migrants who work in the fern fields that surround the rural town in northwest Volusia County.
The ferns she and others pick become part of the bouquets of roses and other flowers that are sold across the country at florists and grocery stores.
Lopez sometimes arrived late to class because several bundles of ferns had yet to be counted at the farm where she works. Still, she always made time to grab a seat at the church beside other working parents who are learning English as a way to improve their work mobility and immerse themselves into American society.
Over the past five years, Lopez has attended the English literacy program at the San Jose Mission, which is offered through the nonprofit Food Brings Hope.
In that time, she has grown more comfortable with the English language – a skill that has allowed her to move into higher position at work, one where she supervises other farmworkers in the fields.
“I'm not ashamed to speak it anymore” Lopez said in Spanish about the English she has learned. “I sometimes felt bad because I thought that maybe I was going to say something wrong. But I don't think like that anymore. If I say something wrong, then I know I have to speak it to correct it.”
Lopez is originally from Mexico. She came to the Pierson area at age of 16, and has lived and worked in the area since. She also has five children, the youngest of whom also studies at the church after school at Pierson Elementary.
While Lopez studies the pages of a workbook in her class, her youngest daughter, Gabriela, 7, meets with a small group of children for another Food Brings Hope program called Kid Zone.
There, the elementary school-age children have the chance to work on math and science activities, among other things. The children also take field trips — although that activity has been somewhat curtailed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“She loves to come here,” Lopez said of Gabriela. “The girls are all good friends.”
And as her daughter has progressed, so has Lopez. Her English skills have advanced to the point that she can fill out forms at a doctor's office without the help of an interpreter.
Daytona State College staff teach the English classes as part of an agreement with Food Brings Hope.
Food Brings Hope Executive Director Judi Winch said the programs at San Jose Mission began in 2015 with 10 adults in English classes, and that number has now grown to 25 adults this year. Initially, the Kid Zone program had about 20 students; now, 30 students are part of the program.
“It's been extremely successful since we started in 2015,” Winch said.
The church's food pantry program has also grown — especially this year, as the coronavirus has impacted employment for many families. In past years, the pantry has provided food for an average of 75 families a week. This year, up to 350 families have received food each week.
“We are an organization that has built trust over the years,” Winch said. “We are glad to oblige, and we have such a good relationship with Pierson.”
Lopez plans to return to her classroom in January when the next semester is set to begin. She wants to continue to improve her English skills and has her sights set on another program that would help her earn her general educational development certificate, also known as a GED.
While she admits the GED program seems much more difficult, Lopez is set on succeeding.
“It's my dream,” Lopez said this week with tears in her eyes. “I always say that I can do it.”