Everyone learning together
How childhood struggles turned into Christina Collazo's mission to teach parents and children at Todos Juntos
A 12-year-old girl bolted upright in bed, awakened by her younger brother’s cries.
Beyond the frightened whimpers, she detected strange voices from the front room of her family’s small house. Like a spy, she emerged from her windowless bedroom to see two uniformed men handcuffing her father, who was dressed in no more than a white undershirt and boxer shorts.
In such situations, the chests of most 12-year-olds would pound with anxiety and their eyes would flood with tears. But this young girl’s eyes were calm. As the two men wearing dark blue Drug Enforcement Administration jackets moved her father out the front door of the house, the girl’s mother yelled out, “Where are you taking him?”
The cops ignored her. The young girl stepped forward to the center of the small room as she heard car doors slam. She raised her head, and her short black ponytail caressed the back of her neck. A whisper emerged from her lips: “Finally, our chance.”
That is how Christina Collazo remembers the day that she says gave her a chance for a better life for her family.
In the Texas Valley border town of Donna where Collazo lived, she dreamed of a future that would be free of the adversity she was living through.
More than a quarter-century removed from her dad’s arrest on drug possession charges, Collazo now lives in Austin and is the executive director of Todos Juntos Learning Center, a nonprofit “two-generation” education center that she founded in 2009.
For 10 years, the organization has educated both preschoolers and their parents (mostly moms) and has provided families with access to services — from English as a second language and nutrition classes to parent support and education groups — with the goal of breaking the poverty cycle.
“Helping women and children is something I’m extremely passionate about,” she says.
At 8 a.m. on a dreary Monday morning in early February, a Todos Juntos’ employee props open a door leading to the education wing of a downtown Austin church building.
Within the next half-hour, more than 60 adults — most of them parents arriving with their preschool-age children — walk through a lone open gate leading to the doors. Whether older or younger, all are students of Todos Juntos, which means “everyone together.”
By 9 a.m., all the adults — mostly women — have settled into four separate rooms, according to skill level, for English classes. The children, meanwhile, are busy with teachers in early education rooms. For all the adults, three hours of ESL this Monday will be followed by three additional hours each on Tuesday and Wednesday and two more hours on Thursday. Mami and Me, the parent education group, will meet for the third hour of programming on Thursday.
Adult student and mom Monica Perez grew up in Mexico and finished high school there. She’s lived in Austin for 13 years and had previously taken one semester of English at Austin Community College, but she couldn’t continue.
“I was looking for another place to study English where I could take my kids," she says. "I didn’t have the money to pay for a babysitter. My cousin told me about Todos Juntos.”
This past year, Perez was in the highest level English class while her two young boys were in early education classrooms at Todos Juntos. In the Mami and Me class, she took to heart the leader’s encouragement that she read books to her boys. She learned to take responsibility for her children’s education and social development, and to not wait until they start kindergarten.
“I’ve learned that we, the parents, are their first teachers,” Perez says.
When Todos Juntos started with about 30 children and 40 parents in fall 2009, Collazo required her adults — all of them native Spanish speakers — to take ESL. Collazo, who began to speak English herself as a 3-year-old while attending a Head Start preschool program in Donna, is committed to empowering her adult students through the learning of language.
Now in its 10th year, the majority of Todos Juntos’ adult learners are still Latin American immigrants. Through the years, though, Collazo has welcomed adults and their children from South Korea, Iraq, Russia, China, Vietnam, Burma and Nepal. Austin Community College, in collaboration with a federal grant program administered through the Texas Workforce Commission, provides ESL teachers for Todos Juntos. The program follows a school year calendar, with summers off. Besides ACC, more than 25 other local organizations provide “wraparound” services to help the families at Todos Juntos navigate life in and around Austin.
Collazo says her organization’s two-generation education approach has one simple goal as it works with vulnerable populations: “We’re creating stronger families.”
María Reveles, an immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, has been in English classes at Todos Juntos for the last five years while two of her children have been in the program.
“Todos Juntos is the best program in Austin for me and my children," Reveles says. "I’m able to speak and understand other people like doctors and nurses, and I don’t feel scared when the other people don’t speak Spanish.”
Sandra Lopez, originally from Puerto Rico, says Todos Juntos has helped her “feel more confident” as a person, and she has seen her 3-year-old son advance in “socialization and communication, speaking just as much English as Spanish.”
Parents and their children receive education at Todos Juntos at no cost. Parents are responsible for buying classroom materials for their toddlers and their own books for ESL classes.
The organization’s yearly budget is $350,000.
“Every relationship we have as an organization,” Collazo says, “started from a personal contact.”
Funders include the United Way, Tapestry Foundation, Buena Vista Foundation, Sooch Foundation, Webber Family Foundation, Austin-area Rotary Clubs, and others.
Collazo and Todos Juntos’ childhood education director, Marcelina del Toro, who oversees a staff of five teachers, are the only full-time employees. As the operations director at the center, Raney McKool coordinates volunteer and partner services, and says, “Working at Todos Juntos has given more purpose to my career than anything else I’ve ever done.”
After graduating from Donna High School, Collazo moved to Austin where she eventually graduated from St. Edward’s University. Speaking at a fundraising dinner for Todos Juntos’ 10th anniversary, Collazo revealed part of her family history to the crowd of 140 people.
“Although my brothers and I had a mom who loved us and only wanted the best for us, love wasn’t enough.” She then explained how she used the trauma from her childhood as the impetus to create Todos Juntos.
“Childhood adversity or chronic stress can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, physical and mental health," she said. "But what if someone had said to my mom, ‘Let us help you. We provide a safe environment where your children can learn while you’ll learn, and at this place you’ll meet other people like you, and you’ll build a network of support, and you’ll take classes.’ If my mom had heard this message, how would our lives have been different?”
Like any other nonprofit organizations, Todos Juntos operates under the direction of a leadership board. Dr. Megan Olshavsky, a data scientist, serves as president of the board that currently consists of education, health and legal professionals.
Two years ago, the researcher flew to Minnesota with Collazo for an education conference. During their commute from the airport to their hotel, Collazo shared the inspiration she gained from observing the difficulty that her mom had to go through.
The conference highlighted two-generation approaches, like the one used by Todos Juntos, that place specific emphases on the empowerment of mothers. The conference emphasized that children’s outcomes simply cannot be improved without explicitly improving outcomes for women, and when women are their most educated and empowered selves, positive outcomes at all levels of society will follow.
After the conference ended, Collazo and Olshavsky had a conversation in the Minneapolis airport that both women remember well. Collazo stunned her organization’s board president when she stated that she didn’t consider herself a feminist.
The researcher, the mother of a young child, says that her head nearly came off her body as she swung around to respond in protest to Collazo. When one helps women meet their potential, she said, that is the work of feminism.
Collazo explained that, yes, in that sense, she was a feminist — but it wasn’t a “vocal” thing for her. She grew up in an environment where she was expected to be quiet and submissive and to not share her opinions. Her way of sharing, she discovered, has to be by doing. If she’s not doing anything, then she has nothing to say.
Recalling the conversation in the airport, Collazo defines her work today with the following bullet points: “I want to help people. I want to help women. I want to help kids. And I want to help women help their kids. That’s my feminism."
Cathy Doggett, the lead planning consultant for United Way of Greater Austin's two-generation strategy, says, “Christina is a dynamic leader deeply committed to serve families who have been isolated from Austin's rich fabric of social supports. Her programs reach families who have not felt safe to engage elsewhere.”
Doggett praises Collazo's program for its ability to celebrate the cultural backgrounds of each immigrant group enrolled while giving them English skills. “She tries to bring out the potential of each family she serves,” Doggett says.
Since 2009, Todos Juntos has served more than 1,000 adult and 550 child students.
On a beautiful day in the middle of May, 14 children dressed in light blue caps and gowns stand on stage steps in front of a banner adorned with balloons and the words “Class of 2019.” The little graduates sing “Now I Know My ABCs” to more than 50 parents and other adults in the all-purpose room at the church that hosts Todos Juntos.
At the conclusion of the singing, Collazo addresses proud parents and children at a Todos Juntos graduation. Her words pinpoint the mission of the organization.
“Since 2009, we’ve had children and parents learning together for life in Austin and for school in Austin — and it all starts with language," she says. "Your kids get to kindergarten speaking English and writing their names, and they are able to interact socially with their classmates. And parents, you are ready to help them with homework, and you’re able to communicate with your child’s teacher.”
Collazo shares a highlight that involves a mom and her 3-year-old son, both visibly apprehensive at the beginning of the school year. From her perch in her office, Collazo would see them arrive late as the boy struggled with separation anxiety, which upset his mom.
By the end of the year, this same mom and child started to arrive early for their classes, and Collazo noticed that the mom was standing up straighter and prouder. And then one morning Collazo saw this child going toward his classroom. Suddenly, she says, he stopped. “He called to his mom and waited for her to turn around. He then blew her a kiss.”
Educator and philanthropist Carmel Borders has been a longtime supporter of Todos Juntos.
“Christina is a hidden gem. The fact that she can do what she does is remarkable.” Borders describes the Todos Juntos executive director as tenacious. “She’s going to follow through on a possibility until she finds out where it’s going to take her and her organization.”
Todos Juntos is hoping to expand on the work that it has done in the past 10 years and looking at using a larger facility as it embarks upon its second decade of education and service to immigrant and refugee families.
RELATED: Get free heart screenings for teens
About Todos Juntos
For more information, visit the organization’s website at todosjuntoslc.org.