When Truckee local Bill Boelk retired from his longtime job as a carpenter two years ago, one of his goals was to find a way to give back, and so he looked back upon his work history. Working as the foreman at job sites throughout his career, Bill had picked up Spanish in order to communicate with the other men on the job.
Later, during a time living in Quebec, he again learned a language — this time French — to allow him to perform his job and communicate with his coworkers. He swears he wasn’t fluent in either Spanish or French, but instead could say the kinds of phrases he needed to for the job, involving measurements and other building terms. Still, it was a love of languages that stuck with Bill. So when he thought about giving back, with all this newly found free time, he landed at the Truckee Read Up! Adult Literacy and Volunteer Program.
Sponsored by the Truckee library, the program provides Bill with a host of materials for teaching and tutoring English, and pairs him with bilingual students who might benefit from his help. That’s how he met Carlos Medina, an English as a Second Language (ESL) speaker whose first language is Spanish. It was a chance meeting, yet they found a number of similarities in each other’s lives that brought them together.
Bill is married, with three children, and has been married once before. Carlos is also married, has three children, and was married before. He is training to be a carpenter’s apprentice. Bill, of course, is retired from the industry. The commonalities went on, shining little lights on parts of their lives that allowed the two not only to begin to study the intricacies of English — improving Carlos’ fluency and confidence in speaking — but to move past studying and just talk with one another.
Now, they meet weekly at the Truckee Community Recreation Center to study language and grammar but spend most of their time just talking — about life, family, the construction industry, and more — as friends. Now that Carlos has a much stronger grasp of English, having spent nearly a year studying with Bill, it’s gaining fluency that’s most important. The two have found that improving his ability to converse is done by just that — having a conversation. And so, they chat.
“I taught a lot of guys how to build houses, and most of the guys I worked with did not speak very good English,” Bill said. “I kind of became a teacher in that sense, so that kind of led me into what we’re doing here. We shared a lot of life experiences and had a lot of common threads with that, so it’s worked out well.”
His biggest triumph has been not only improving Carlos’ confidence, but opening up his lines of communication with his youngest son. Carlos has worked to learn English for six years. In Los Angeles, where he lived last, people can get by speaking Spanish alone by frequenting places like stores and gas stations where everybody else speaks Spanish too. But Carlos’ three children, especially his youngest, speak mostly English.
“The youngest one speaks more English with his siblings, and my wife speaks English too. Only with me he speaks Spanish,” Carlos said. “If he tries to tell me something’s happening at school, he can’t do it in Spanish.” Sometimes when he’d try to tell his father something, which Carlos didn’t understand, the boy would just say “oh, never mind.”
After working with Bill, and attending weekly English classes offered by the county for the past year, Carlos’ confidence has improved vastly. He can read his bills. He can ask questions when he goes around town. And, he can speak to his son.
“I was very shy before, if I asked for something,” he says. “Sometimes if I don’t understand something, I’m not shy now. I just ask them to repeat the question. I feel much, much better. Now I can talk to my youngest son, and he talks to me too. He’ll say ‘you know, Daddy, you know what happened in school …’”
Bill agrees. “The happiest I am with the accomplishment was getting him and his son to talk,” he says.
For Carlos, there’s been something magical about working with Bill that has allowed him a renewed confidence and knack for conversation.
“When I talk to him, I feel very comfortable,” he says. “He’s like my best friend. I don’t have any other person to talk to like I talk to Bill. At work … I never tell them about my life. But he’s different for me. He’s a special person.”
“We always enjoy our time together,” says Bill. “And we usually end up sharing something about our past lives, with family … problems we’ve had, different family issues, peers at work, and the dynamics at work … we’ve shared those kinds of experiences. The more you share with them, the closer you get with them. I consider him a really good friend.”
To get involved in Truckee Read Up! call coordinator Rolann Aronson at (530) 575-7030.