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Unsung Hero: Barbara Miller, making English learning happen in Portland

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Unsung Hero: Barbara Miller, making English learning happen in Portland

PORTLAND — “You miss so much if you live in a world where you don’t know how to read,” said Barbara Miller, who mentors young people for Make it Happen, a program overseen by the Portland Public Schools' Multilingual and Multicultural Center.

Miller grew up in Los Angeles and attended a high school that was 50 percent Hispanic. She discovered early on that many young people struggle with the English language or, in many cases, lack strong support from home. Her three best friends were Hispanic, Chinese and Japanese.

She earned a degree in psychology in college and eventually married a U.S. Navy sailor. Because of her inclination to serve and her husband’s peripatetic career, Miller has compiled a diverse list of service: adult literacy tutor, Little League umpire and umpire trainer, parent volunteer for schools in five different states, and volunteer for Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. She moved to Portland in 2007.

In 2011, Miller saw a poster announcing the need for volunteers for the Make It Happen program. It seemed like a fine fit, so she called the number and signed on. The program website notes that “Make It Happen is a program that pairs English Language Learners in grades 8-12 with volunteer academic coaches to provide personalized, structured academic and social support.”

Miller spends two hours every Monday and Tuesday at Deering High School, mentoring two students from Somalia, and works with other students as needed. She might provide basic help, such as assisting with homework assignments or working on vocabulary. Or she might discuss broader issues, such as college possibilities or career goals. Or she might simply talk about life.

The numbers confirm the critical importance of the Make it Happen program. English is not the native language for about 30 percent of the students in the Portland public schools. The students represent 59 different language groups; the five most commonly represented language groups are Somali, Arabic, Spanish, French and Khmer.

Nancy Boucher, development coordinator for Make it Happen, said there are about 50 active volunteers working with the program. She noted that the coaches help students wrestle with the nuances of the English language, and said “Barbara Miller is amazing, a pillar of the program.”

Tim Cronin, program coordinator, added that in addition to being a fine mentor, Miller has secured donations to pay for computers for the program.

Grace Valenzuela, program director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Center, said, “The dedicated staff, the involved parents and the passionate coaches are important, but it’s really about helping kids who are committed to realizing their dreams.”

When asked why she dedicates so much of her time to Make it Happen, Miller talks about her two students. She said she’s proud that one of them had the initiative to tell his story at “The Telling Room,” a nonprofit writing center in Portland dedicated to the idea that children and young adults are natural storytellers.

And then there was a recent conversation she had with the other student, Ayni Shardi.

“She said to me, ‘I’m not sure why, but I really like talking to you,’" Miller said. "It’s moments like these that help me feel like I’m making a difference.”