The English translations of the Spanish word poder are power and to be able. PODER, a Chicago-based nonprofit immigrant integration center seeks to empower Spanish-speaking adults by supplementing their existing skill sets. PODER offers English Works (EW), an English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum that includes civic engagement, emotional intelligence, job training, and computer fluency. To address the challenges faced by adult students who struggle to balance study with work, PODER founded Oprima-1, a scalable and sustainable work-study program that allows English language learners to earn wages in transitional employment positions while continuing their studies.
Oprima-1 is a third party bilingual call center where advocates, so named to emphasize the high level of human connection Oprima-1 aims to achieve, are empowered from their first day. “Rather than saying to students 6 months from now or a year from now you’ll have these skills, Oprima-1 says you’re marketable now. When you walk in the door, you possess a great asset and that’s your Spanish speaking ability,” says Oprima-1 President and CEO Daniel Loftus. Advocates perform customer care including fielding calls for customer support and making outgoing lead generation calls where they seek opportunities to personally engage the customer. Companies that contract with Oprima-1 receive the benefit of services that help them connect with and retain business from the Spanish-speaking population of the United States. Advocates work up to 30 hours/week and spend an additional 8-10 hours/week in classes. PODER continues to provide career counseling and helps advocates focus on their goals for the future.
The successful advocate is a unique individual recruited from PODER’s EW students. He or she is not necessarily the best English speaker. Rather, the successful advocate possesses a certain demeanor, a pleasant outlook, and an innate ability to connect with the customer. To work in a call center is not an easy task, but at Oprima-1, it is a means to the end of English proficiency and entry into the mainstream workforce.
Yelitza is a successful advocate. A native of Venezuela, Yelitza struggled to reliably support her family for 13 years in Chicago before a Telemundo report on Oprima-1 inspired her to enroll in classes at PODER. She began advocate training six months later. Within another year, Yelitza’s English and foundation in customer service principles were strong. Yelitza is now a full-time bilingual travel agent. While she understood the professional value of her training from the beginning, she learned that it also helped her grow personally and she became a leader in her office and community. “I’m very grateful…if it weren’t for Oprima-1, I would still be struggling to provide for my family,” says Yelitza.
Other graduates have found success in a variety of industries. Some return to fields that fit their education and experience prior to immigrating. Many find employment in customer service, in positions such as office managers and receptionists. Advocates are often successful as a bridge between human resources and a Spanish-speaking workforce. Their language skills and cultural sensitivity continue to be an asset.