Graciela Hernandez talks with her hands.
Graciela doesn’t just talk with her hands. She conducts symphonies. She constructs imaginary skyscrapers, lassos tornados and she carves out technicolor daydreams with the constant fluttering of her hands.
Arriving from Mexico seventeen years ago, Graciela spoke little English and knew she had to learn for the sake of her children.
“My children come home with homework and said, ‘Mami, help me!’ And I couldn’t because I couldn’t speak English,” she recalls. “They used to go to the neighbor for help but I asked them to stop. I wanted to help them – I am their mother. I needed to learn English for my family.”
The Hernandez family got involved with the Farm Worker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County and through them, learned about BRIDGES.
“One day, I went to a program for farm workers and the lady there told me even though I qualified for the program, I couldn’t do it because my English wasn’t good,” Graciela said. “She pushed me away and said, ‘If you refuse to take classes, my program is closed to you.’”
She learned she could take ESOL classes for free and despite being apprehensive, she signed up.
“It was so scary and the first time I went out of the house without my husband,” she said. “I was sweating and shivering and shaking, I was so nervous. But they told me that I would have fun. And I did!”
Graciela became more engaged with BRIDGES and when she told the staff that she was applying for her citizenship, they helped her study for the exam.
“They studied with me for hours,” she said. “I read and I read and I listened. (BRIDGES child development specialist) Jose told me never to give up. He said it was just like when I’m studying English. I must pass the test.”
She stops, smiles widely and her fingers tango in a proud flourish.
“I passed the test!” she cheered. “I cried when I passed. I was so nervous and I had worked so hard but I like every challenge I go through.”
Her next challenge was getting a job.
“I got an interview at KFC and I was scared because I was competing against twenty other people,” she said.
But again, Graciela found the support and encouragement she needed at BRIDGES.
“Jose told me, ‘Graciela, you don’t worry! You’re going to stick out!’” she said with a broad smile.
At her interview, she told HR that she wanted to work for KFC because she wanted to work. Her children were getting older and she needed to make more money to support her family. She also mentioned she wanted to work because she liked new challenges.
She got the job and two months later, the owners came in to meet new staff. They got to talking and asked if Graciela was interested in a position at the management level.
“No!” she said with a giggle, shielding her face with her hands. “Why not? I don’t know! I get scared!”
She peeks out from behind her hands, warm brown eyes sparkling with mischievous joy.
“But, it’s a new challenge and I like those,” she said. “They see my hard work. They see my initiative and they see how I treat people.”
Graciela loves the customer service aspect of her job.
“I’m very friendly – I always ask if people are OK. I always say good morning,” she said. “I don’t like to see people sad. I always want to help. I like when people are happy.”
She is also one of the most tolerant and least judgmental people she knows.
“We open in the morning and sometimes, people come in and get food early. My co-workers say, ‘Is someone gonna eat chicken at 10:00am?’ and I tell them, ‘It’s not your problem! If she wants 100 pieces of chicken at 10:00am, let her!’”
This love of people is directly connected to her love of the Highland community. At BRIDGES, the Hernandez family have found a good network of people surrounding them. People they like and people they trust.
“BRIDGES is so important for us and the community,” she said. “They always encourage us to be successful and to grow. They are here for many reasons. They work a lot with this community. They don’t only think of themselves.”
Always looking towards the horizon, Graciela has set herself two goals for the near future. The first is to get her driver’s license.
“I take the bus everywhere – to work, to the store, to volunteer with the kids. My husband says to me that if I get license, he’ll buy me a car!”
Her second goal is to lead by example and earn her GED.
“I encourage my children to go to college. Mami isn’t going to get you a certificate for making tortillas! You need to improve yourself,” she said. “I want to get a GED so I can work for the government or for the community and give back.”
“My other son wants to study law and he thinks it might be too late at 25,” Graciela said. “I tell him it’s never too late. It’s never too late to learn something new.”