They work long hours…before, during, and after school days. They are about 8,500 miles from their native country of Laos, a small country in Southeast Asia.
But Bounthane, nicknamed Bonnie, and her husband Leut Keochanthanivong, who moved to Altus in 1997, enthusiastically come to the Great Plains Literacy Council for their English lessons with volunteer tutor Jennifer Stanley at the Altus Public Library.
The Lao language is so different from English. Bonnie and Leut fled Laos as refugees in the mid-1970s to Thailand. Then after a few years, US sponsors provided their separate arrivals to Lawton, Oklahoma, where they met each other. The sponsors helped them with their legal paperwork and in finding jobs, even though they didn’t know English.
“When we moved to America,” Bonnie recalled with a laugh, “we could not understand the people. Even asking to go to the restroom was difficult!”
In 1981, they married and moved to Florida and later to California. In 1992, they obtained US citizenship in California where immigration classes helped them pass the examinations. So how did they end up in Altus, Oklahoma? They had lived in big cities and wanted to come back to southwest Oklahoma. Turns out they had friends at Hobart who helped them find work here.
“It wasn’t easy as all our employers always spoke English,” remembered Leut. “We relied on hand signals or they would show us what to do.”
They raised their two sons and two daughters in Altus, who have all graduated from Altus High School. It was difficult not being able to help them with school work, but they encouraged their children to do well at school. It was important to both Bonnie and Leut that their kids learn the English language as well as their native language.
Now they both are custodians with the Altus Public School System. A friend, Kimly Pang, an ESL adult learner in the local literacy program, directed them to the library to learn through tutoring. They followed that advice and started with their weekly tutoring with Jennifer Stanley in October 2013.
“Both have been studying English and making progress,” summarized Mrs. Stanley. “Learning to write, speak, and comprehend another language takes time and practice.”
It hasn’t been a road without obstacles, but Leut and Bonnie know how fortunate to be in America as citizens. Leut is quick to pull out his cell phone to show pictures of his grandchildren. They both have starting writing stories to be accepted this summer and published in a statewide literacy book, written by adult learners.
“We want to keep learning more English,” they both exclaim. They have been thankful for their GPLC tutor Jennifer and the literacy services.
Anyone interested in becoming tutors or needing assistance with reading, health literacy, citizenship, or other literacy goals, can call the Altus Library at 580-477-2890 or the Hollis Library at 580- 688-2744.
Also upcoming programs for the public on naturalization information will be held on Tuesday, March 24, at the Altus Public Library, 421 N. Hudson. US Citizenship and Immigration Community Relations Officer Jesus Ramirez from the Regional Office in Dallas
will be conducting “Naturalization Information in English” in the west meeting room at 1 pm. Then at 5 pm he will present “Naturalization Information in Spanish”. Both of these meetings will focus on questions often asked by immigrants and their families.
Citizenship literacy is supported by grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, and the Rural Oklahoma Community Foundation.