A midcareer "failure" for a Palo Alto woman sparked a new trajectory that's helping local housekeepers, gardeners, waiters and home health aides to go to community college.
Elizabeth Weal left the high-tech world in her 40s to get a teaching credential, but "was not a success" as a fifth-grade teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Menlo Park. However she quickly found a niche at a school across the street the Sequoia Adult School teaching evening classes in English as a Second Language.
"These were amazing people, and I got this incredible sense that this is where I belonged," Weal said in an interview this week. "It was totally the opposite of the fifth graders, who were the children of these people I was enamored with."
Weal fell in love with the work and with her students. Ultimately, she wrote and self-published a series of simple, basic English grammar and writing textbooks after realizing her students needed guidance in their native Spanish and nothing was to be had.
Friendships with her students nearly all of them low-wage workers then led her to a new step: raising funds to help them take classes in community college.
This fall, 69 of them are enrolled at Canada College with small stipends from her recently registered nonprofit, Sequoia Adult School Scholars.
"These are people who really have no extra money," she said. "My idea was that if we can make this free, people would go."
Since most of the students have day jobs, they're not going to school full-time, just taking a class or two. Weal hopes some of them will complete the ESL sequence and work toward a certificate.
"One guy is a construction worker going for a certificate in kitchen and bath design," Weal said. "Another works at the counter at The Cheesecake Factory and wants to be a preschool teacher.
Weal recalled taking her Sequoia ESL students on a field trip to Canada College: "It was a gorgeous campus, and people were walking around with their mouths open 'I can go here? This is for me?' It was a real eye-opening experience."
A grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation provides a part-time adviser at the adult school to help students apply for community college, and Weal's group offers $64-a-month bus passes or parking passes and help with textbooks.
East Palo Alto resident Nely Perez worked full time often seven days a week in a Burlingame car wash in her 12 years since arriving from Mexico, where she was a secretary in a law office.
While working 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the car wash, Perez said, "I didn't have time to study. I never attended school, but in January I said, 'No, I need to prepare. I need to go to school. I like to study.'"
Her husband, a construction worker, encouraged her and, with a parking pass and textbooks paid for by Sequoia Adult School Scholars, Perez is taking three English classes at Canada.
She wants to be able to help her 8-year-old daughter with her homework.
"The only thing I need is somebody with whom I can speak English because at home everybody speaks Spanish," Perez said. After speaking English all day at work and school, her husband and daughter prefer to speak Spanish at home, she said.
Weal continues to sell her $10 textbooks 11,000 of them so far through Amazon.com and out of her garage, and she's no longer losing money.
"Obviously I'm not supporting myself in Palo Alto with these books, but more and more the sales are going up," she said. "I am making money not a lot of money."
She's found a market in neighborhood organizations, churches and groups with names like Adelante Mujeres (Forward Women), where ESL classes are taught.
"People send in money orders for a book," she said. "One guy from East Palo Alto came to my house with cash for a book."
Weal stores 1,500 books in her garage and Amazon prints them on demand, which she calls "a pretty unsexy way to print books.
"My husband says, 'Aren't you sick of packing boxes of books?' and I say 'No, I'm incredibly happy to do this.'
"It's great to be making books that make a difference."