The Community ESL Program of Whitewater Celebrates 25 Years of Changing Lives

What started out as a dream for Jorge Islas-Martinez and Sandra Heyer more than a quarter of a century ago has come to change the lives of thousands of people, including hundreds of English-language learners, their families, and the Whitewater community as a whole. 

In 1997, Islas-Martinez and Heyer had the vision to create an ESL program for adult learners in Whitewater after the southeastern Wisconsin town experienced an increase in migration, predominantly from Mexico.

“Sandra and I wanted to help provide English language instruction to area adults who wanted to learn English to better connect with the Whitewater community and support their families,” said Islas-Martinez. “We never dreamed it would continue to have an impact on so many generations of families.” 

A gala to celebrate the success of the Community ESL Program of Whitewater will be held at 5 p.m. on Friday, July 26, at 841 Brewhouse in Whitewater, Wisconsin, and will feature dinner, recognitions and dancing. 

“I am overwhelmed to think of what the impact of the program on the community has been over the years,” said Islas-Martinez. “So many volunteers from the English- and Spanish-speaking communities and partnerships with organizations and the school district have made this possible. It is my dream that we can come together to celebrate this life-changing effort, and that the program will continue to grow and touch even more lives in the future.”

“I am very thankful for this program because it has allowed me the opportunity to achieve more than one of my dreams,” said Ana Leon, ESL program participant. “My first dream was becoming an independent person so I could talk to my children’s teachers, make appointments, go to the store and many more things. Then I decided to take the computer classes offered in this program — this allowed me to achieve my second dream, which was obtaining my GED, and I did it online. I know for a fact more dreams to achieve are on my way. Thanks to all my teachers for everything you do for us.” 

The Community ESL Program of Whitewater is offered in the evenings at Whitewater High School and, since 2021, during the day at the Community Space in Whitewater. Bilingual adults who themselves grew up in Whitewater in Spanish-speaking households provide childcare and assist students with homework and provide enrichment activities. The Whitewater Unified School District and occasional contributions from local civic groups and churches provide financial support; the United Way of Jefferson and North Walworth Counties supports the childcare program. 

The four levels of curriculum, from beginning to advanced English language proficiency, were fully developed and taught by experienced teachers, including Heyer, who is the author of a textbook series called “True Stories” aimed at developing reading-skill instruction to English language learners in a carefully paced, step-by-step process. 

In addition to improving their reading, writing, and communication skills in English, students in the program have been able to work towards citizenship, learn basic computer literacy, and get information about local resources.

“In a safe and supportive environment, this program helps students to learn essential life skills that are critical for their survival in a new community,” said Sarah Linn, ESL program instructor. “We as a community benefit from their hard work and the sacrifices these students make in achieving their goals and dreams of a new life in the United States.”

With the increase in multilingual residents the school district and the city have experienced in recent years, the need for the program is only expected to grow.

“Our district and community are home to many multilingual families,” said Terilyn Robles, Director of Teaching and Learning at Whitewater Unified School District. “In fact, multilingual learners and bilingual students make up over one-third of WUSD and represent 10 different languages. Over the years, the staff and students of our language programs and the Community ESL Program of Whitewater have made a tremendous impact in promoting bilingualism and biliteracy.”

For more information on the Whitewater Adult ESL program or to purchase tickets for the gala, contact Jorge Islas-Martinez at 920-397-8942 or

Kristine Zaballos
The Community Space

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