Surprisingly, people from all over the world end up working at the Tyson meat-processing plant in Wallula. While the preponderance of workers there are Hispanic, “We have about 11 different languages that are spoken in our facility,” says David Tobias, who has worked in the plant for 35 years and is now the human resources manager.
“We have team members from Myanmar that speak Burmese and others that speak Karen. We have Russians, Bosnians, Vietnamese, Lao, Sudanese, we have people speaking Arabic, Ukrainians and Somalis.”
And that is why Tyson needs Elio Quiros-Meneses and Noemi Reed. Tucked into a small, green-walled classroom inside the plant, they spend their days teaching any worker who wants to learn English, or study for a GED, and even to prepare for the U.S. citizenship exam.
Both are Walla Walla Community College employees, stationed inside the plant as part of a cooperative agreement between the college and the company.
Quiros-Meneses hails from Costa Rica. He has a master’s degree in technology and taught at the National University of Costa Rica before coming here.
Reed is a native of Mexico and an architect. When she was a child, her parents owned a school for adults who never had the opportunity to study as children. Before coming here, she taught architecture at the University of Guadalajara.
“I love this class,” says Reed, “because the people who come here want to do something with their lives. They put all their energy into coming here to learn. Their stories touch my heart.”
Quiros-Meneses shares her enthusiasm.
“It’s an incredible experience, teaching in this classroom,” he says. “All of the students are here because they want to learn. We have some students who started this class not speaking any English, and now they speak it, they have their GED and they are working as supervisors.”
Together the teachers preside over a nontraditional classroom. There are no lectures, there’s no single curriculum. Each quarter, 50-65 students are enrolled, and each one is given an individual course of study, depending on their goals and skill level in English.
There are also no class hours. Students come in on their breaks, on their lunch hours or after work, sometimes all three. Each student enters the classroom quietly, finds the folder containing his or her work, sits down and begins to study. Some are in blood-spattered work clothes, others eat as they study.
Quires-Meneses and Reed keep a watchful eye over the room, circulating to answer questions and provide help wherever it’s needed. Some students can stay for only 15 minutes, others manage half an hour.
Student Cindy Garcia says, “We have this opportunity to have this little school here, and we need to take advantage of it. Even if we can only come in for 15-20 minutes, we still learn.”
She was born in California, but became pregnant in high school and wasn’t able to graduate. She started at Tyson with a good command of spoken English, but speaks Spanish at home with her mother and husband.
“Not all my English is perfect,” she says. “I’ve forgotten a lot about reading and writing in English. I’ve been dedicated to my family, raising my four children, and to working, so I never had a chance to read a book.”
She earned her GED through this program a couple of years ago. Now she’s the ergonomics monitor in the plant and has to write reports in English. She brings her draft reports to the classroom for help perfecting them.
Marta Morales is another enthusiastic student. Born in Guatemala, she has four children and eight grandchildren. She is 55 years old and has been working at Tyson for nearly 20 years. She earned her GED through the program in 2011, then her U.S. citizenship in 2014.
Now she is working to further improve her English.
“I am grateful to Tyson for providing us the classroom space, and with the teachers who are passionate to come and teach us,” she says.
People ask Tobias why Tyson wants to encourage people to improve their skills, knowing that they could take those skills to another company
that might pay more or have easier working conditions.
“Because either way, we’re doing the right thing,” he replies. “If they stay with us and promote through our system, that’s great. If we can help them better themselves somewhere else, that’s also great for us. Everything we give out is going to come back.”
Tobias takes obvious pleasure in observing how proud employees are to invite their children to their GED graduation, and even prouder to earn their citizenship.
“We have a passion for taking care of our team members,” he emphasizes, “besides giving them a job and paying them a wage. Our instructors are great. They have a wealth of knowledge and are very patient. You have to take care of those that are taking care of you. That’s what this program represents.”
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