LYNN — When Andie Salvador Bonilla arrived here from the Dominican Republic five years ago, she couldn’t speak a word of English.
The language barrier made it tough for the 25-year-old Lynn resident to find a job. After seven months of searching, she finally found work in a restaurant where the staff spoke Spanish.
While the low-wage job provided an income, there was no opportunity to advance or learn English. Earlier this year, Bonilla saw a flyer about “Pay for Success,” a free language training and job placement program for limited English speakers seeking to advance their careers.
The three-year initiative is a collaborative effort of the state; the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), a Boston nonprofit that helps people find employment and build careers, while partnering with employers to hire workers; the Lynn Housing Authority & Neighborhood Development; and Lynn Economic Opportunity.
On Thursday, Bonilla told an enthusiastic crowd at the housing authority that her English skills are improving and she recently took a new job as a housekeeper at the North Shore Medical Center in Salem.
“It’s not my dream job, but it’s the first step into a world of opportunity,” she said. “I not only have a job and improved my English, but I have a new life and a new chance for me and my family.”
The $12.4 million program was launched last spring with an investment from 40 investors, with 50 percent coming from Prudential Financial Inc. and Maycomb Capital.
Today, there are 50 students enrolled in two classes in Lynn. But there’s room for 150 more over the next three years.
“We need to get the word out because not enough people in Lynn know about it,” said Carol Ozelius, chief operating officer of JVS. “This isn’t a nice thing to do, this is a need to have.”
There’s clearly a need for such ESL programs, say advocates. Non-English speakers experience higher rates of unemployment and in Massachusetts earn about $24,000 less annually than individuals who speak the language fluently, according to the commonwealth.
This is not the first time such an program has been introduced to the city. Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy reminded the crowd that Fitzroy Alexander, president of Traditional Breads, launched a similar effort.
“He gave his employees time off, and paid them to learn English in the workplace while they were earning a living,” she said. “Something unexpected happened, their workers’ compensation claims decreased dramatically because employees were able to read warning labels on the bread making machines. So there’s an obvious benefit of learning a second language, but there are often other benefits.”
Fitzroy Alexander, president of Traditional Breads, hired a firm to teach ESL to 70 of his 190 employees last year. The class, which was held on Saturday, was free for employees who were paid for the time.
“Many of the people who work here have a hard time communicating in English,” he said. “To make the business run more efficiently, we started to offer English classes and it’s paid off. Our operation is so much smoother as a result.”
Anyone interested in joining the program must first attend a mandatory information session. The next one will be held on Tuesday, August 8 at 10 a.m. at 20 Wheeler St.