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Dover student honored with Literacy Coalition scholarship

César Pérez de León's story is one of very hard work and determination. He is now working to start a summer reading program for high school students to meet once a week to study and learn English.

Scott Daniels

César Pérez de León is a modest, soft-spoken young man about whom one hears words like “driven,” “remarkable,” “motivated” and “diligent” used frequently. Winding up the last week of his senior year at Dover High School, de León is recipient of a $500 scholarship from the Tuscarawas County Literacy Coalition, which he will use to further his education in the fall at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, where he plans to study biology with an eye toward an eventual career in medicine.
But while de León’s journey has been one of very hard work and determination, he has recognized the difficulty of his own struggles and has used what little spare time available to help others who have come along behind him.
“When I came here about four years ago,” de León said in excellent English, “I didn’t speak any English at all, and school was overwhelming and very challenging. For the first two years it was very difficult.”
De León made use of available media to speed his understanding of the new language. “I listened to a lot of music and watched television and movies,” he said. “With this, in addition to my studies, I was able to learn more quickly.”
He wanted to offer assistance and tutoring to other students, many of whom were unable to read or write in their native language, as they acclimated to their new home. “I didn’t want others to struggle in the same way with school,” de León said.
Approaching the high school administration, he was able to secure some space and began teaching others for whom English was a new language. He also offered tutoring at the Dover Public Library.
Then he began a club, Mano Amiga (Helping Hand), to help still more. De León said the club meets every four to six weeks as a support group for those adjusting to a new culture, where they can ask questions and get assistance.
Jim Gill, director at the Dover Public Library, said de León is seen often there, volunteering and tutoring others. “It’s really remarkable. He was working overnights at a job, then grabbing a couple of hours sleep before school and still does all these other things. His is an American Dream story.”
In speaking with de León, one has the sense of a person who is determined to use every second wisely. It is clear his motivation is to help others avoid the kind of difficult cultural shock he experienced in a new land and with a new language.
“I wish there had been someone like that to help me when I began,” he said. “They need help to adapt to school and studies. How can they do well if they are struggling?”
De León began life in Tzalbal in Guatemala, 2,800 miles from his new home in Dover. “There really is no other option but to leave,” he said. “It is very poor with almost no chances for education. It is a slowly developing area with a lot of crime, gangs, drugs. It can be very dangerous.”
Sarah Lehman, who worked as an instructor at Dover High School at the time de León began at the school, said his accomplishments are extraordinary.
“We began a summer tutoring program for English learners so they wouldn’t lose ground before the next school year, and César was the one who never missed a class.”
Lehman said de León has maintained a heavy class load in advanced classes and has maintained straight A grades in all of them. “In honors language arts, in advanced biology, physics, calculus, all of it,” she said, adding that his writing “is just remarkable and beautiful. He works to support literacy here and with the goal of doing the same in Guatemala.”
De León sees the need to help there in other ways also. His long-term goal is to return to his birth region, where there is a great need for physicians and medical help for the native population.
In the meantime he’s not resting. He continues to serve as interpreter for adults who need help with medical appointments, government forms and functioning in the daily world of their new home. He said, “I am working to start a summer reading program for high school students to meet once a week to study and learn the language.”

Published: May 18, 2017
New Article ID: 2017170519965