ASTORIA, Queens (WABC) -- A New York City ESL teacher who started her journey 24 years ago as a GED student is being celebrated during this Hispanic Heritage Month.
Yolanda Ruiz-DeJesus works at the non-profit HANAC, which is marking its 50th anniversary.
She joined HANAC as a GED student in the High School Equivalency Program nearly a quarter century ago, and with her degree, she became a beloved teacher in in the English as a Second Language program, where she has been teaching for two decades.
"I was struggling with my two sons, and they sent me here," she said. "And that was the end of that."
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She says the program helped her life take off, and in her graduation photo, she is holding her GED and her two sons Daniel and Omar.
Since then, she's been teaching in Astoria.
"I became a role model for my sons and got my teaching degree," she said. "And (HANAC) helped me through all that."
Almost all of HANAC's city and state funded programs are free, and they offer immigrants everything from legal aid to affordable housing help to schooling.
Ruiz-DeJesus' students come in speaking everything from Portuguese and Spanish to French and Greek.
"It's so amazing when they come back to me, 'Oh, teacher, I was able to talk to my doctor,' or 'I was able to talk to the teachers for my children,' and job interviews. A lot of them have gone on job interviews and gotten a job."
So much of it, she says, is about getting people to try, make mistakes, and keep going.
"That's when I tell them, 'Talk,'" she said. "Because sometimes that fear is what holds them back, and they know more than what they think they know."
She says teaching is a calling she's had since she was a little girl.
"I wanted to be a teacher since I was in kindergarten," she said. "The teacher I had, Mrs. Simmons, I never forget her name, was amazing. So what I used to do is go home, copy all of what she used to do, and pretend I was a teacher with my dolls."
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Now, for almost 25 years, she's been the teacher she imagined, helping students and inspiring her now adult sons.
"Seeing my sons tell me that, all the time, 'Mom, you made it.' 'Mom, you did it.' 'We told you you could do it,' it's awesome," she said. "It's amazing."
One of HANAC's many services is to provide free English classes for adult immigrants, aiming to provide non-native English speakers with the tools they need to become active members of the community.
They offer High School Equivalency classes to prepare people to take the exam needed to obtain a GED. Classes are free of charge and open to anyone 18 years of age or older.
For more information, visit the HANAC website.