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Categories: Blog


“I have to learn how things are working, and then I make them better.”

This is exactly what YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee Instructor Joaquina Martinez has done since walking through the Family Learning Center (FLC) doors in December of 2019. In three short years, Joaquina has taught 600 students, most of whom are non-English speaking adults. Nearly 200 of these students have made academic gains, and 52 passed the challenging HiSET test (formerly GED) to earn their High School Equivalency diplomas. What’s almost more remarkable than these program successes was the path Joaquina took to Nashville and the YWCA.

Joaquina is an electrical engineer who spent almost three decades working for the national telephone company in her homeland of Venezuela. After retiring, she opened a small cell phone shop, which quickly grew into four shops. Joaquina became a successful entrepreneur who loved helping and employing others. But economic and political conditions in her country began deteriorating in 2014. Her daughter survived an attempted carjacking and shooting, and Joquina sent her to live in the United States. After selling her businesses, she followed her daughter to the U.S. in late 2017.

Soon after arriving, Joaquina received her Green Card. She wanted to open up another business, but money was tight, having left so much behind in Venezuela. Instead, she threw herself into volunteering in her adopted city. Joaquina got connected with SCORE, a nonprofit dedicated to helping small businesses thrive. The leadership at SCORE introduced her to a group of women who helped Latina business owners. Joaquina’s relationship with the Hispanic Family Foundation (HFF) was her introduction to the YWCA.

The YWCA’s FLC and HFF were heading into its third year partnering with Adult Education classes, tutoring, and HiSET tests. The YWCA’s Spanish-speaking instructor had recently departed and the FLC director, Cade Fleming, was preparing to go out on maternity leave. Cade and Joaquina met and hit it off instantly. Joaquina joined the YWCA in late 2019. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. The in-person classes that were offered at the YWCA and those taught in the HFF classrooms were no longer an option. Joaquina and longtime YWCA FLC volunteer, Terry Jenkins, worked out a plan to teach classes on Zoom. She scanned all of the books, worksheets, and papers that students needed so they were available online. Individual refresher lessons in both Spanish and English were recorded and uploaded to YouTube for the students to access. The students thrived, and so did FLC enrollment.

The COVID-friendly system that was set up nearly three years ago is still in place. “It is so much more convenient for our students,” says Joaquina. “It wasn’t easy to convert everything and switch to an online system, but now we can’t look back and don’t want to go back!”

FLC students are primarily working adults whose circumstances vary widely, and the YWCA can reach all of them. Some students work in warehouses and can zoom into class. Others live farther outside of Nashville, including Clarksville, Gallatin, and even Memphis. Most of the students come to the YWCA FLC through word of mouth. There are even three families currently enrolled. They’re coming for that special relationship that Joaquina offers.

“I really like what I do. I really enjoy it, a lot. I talk to so many people. I try to help them, and I always try to make them feel comfortable. I ask them where they are from. And I tell them that ‘I am from South America.’ I hope they feel and know that I really care about them.”

And they do. They’ll call her to ask if she knows of a good child care center or if there is a skilled attorney she can recommend. One of the latest FLC projects is offering Legal Aid clinics and financial literacy classes to students and their families. These are coupled with the YWCA’s longtime career services program. “We’re not just giving them an education for the HiSET. We’re giving them knowledge and more tools to help them succeed — in this moment and in the future,” Joaquina says.

“Joaquina is the best thing that could have ever happened to the FLC,” said Director Cade Fleming. “We could never have achieved the success without her passion and enthusiasm for the program and our people.”

And what does this retired entrepreneur and electrical engineer think about her work at an organization whose mission is to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all?

“I never thought I’d end up here. I was looking to open a business. But I really enjoy it and have no regrets. I enjoy it every day,” said Joaquina. “And I can’t wait for the next graduation. That’s my very favorite day of the school year.”’

YWCA’s first in-person graduation since the COVID-19 pandemic will be Saturday, July 15.