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Senior residents at Carolina Meadows help immigrant staff achieve their goals

Video: At Carolina Meadows retirement community, residents have partnered with Chatham County Literacy Council to help employees pass their citizenship tests and earn GEDs. This summer, six successfully attained citizenship.
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Video: At Carolina Meadows retirement community, residents have partnered with Chatham County Literacy Council to help employees pass their citizenship tests and earn GEDs. This summer, six successfully attained citizenship.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Carmen Hernandez emigrated from El Salvador, not Mexico.

Some came to America for love and family; others were children whose parents wanted a better life.

Maribel Ruiz, 37, was in the third- or fourth-grade, she said, when her family traveled to the United States. For a long time, she lacked the confidence to trade her Permanent Resident Card, more commonly known as a Green Card, which allowed her to live and work in the country, for citizenship, she said.

“My friends around here, co-workers, motivated me,” said Ruiz, a senior housekeeper at the Carolina Meadows retirement community in northern Chatham County.

This summer, she and five other Carolina Meadows employees — Dinora Cantarero, Sara Salgado, Carmen Hernandez, Wendy Lissette Rivas Oporto and retiree Rosario Yruegas — celebrated attaining U.S. citizenship in the past year.

Their tutors — Carolina Meadows residents Gustavo Maroni, Mary Morrow and Margaret Miles, and non-resident Joanne Caye — showed a lot of patience in helping them study, Ruiz said. She no longer fears what could happen if immigration laws change.

Citizenship means “freedom that there’s no way they would actually take me away from here, and I can be with my kids,” she said. “I want everybody that has their resident card to do their best to try and get their citizenship for better opportunities.”

The Chatham County Literacy Council partnered with Carolina Meadows in 2011 to train its residents to tutor its staff members, providing English for Speakers of Other Languages, citizenship, and adult basic and secondary education classes.

Vicki Newell, executive director of Chatham Literacy, noted how much hard work and dedication it takes to achieve citizenship, and the commitment that Carolina Meadows made in giving staff two hours each week for lunch and tutoring sessions. Most students spend six to nine months with the tutors, plus extra time on their own studying the materials.

When they were ready, Chatham Literacy staff helped the immigrants apply for citizenship. The process costs $725, compared with $1,140 for a 10-year Green Card that costs $190 to renew.

Everyone gets three chances to pass the test — correctly answering six out of 10 U.S. history and government questions from a 100-question list. All six women passed it on their first try and also had to read in English, answer questions in writing and be interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer.

It is for the women she tutors, many of whom have lived in the United States for nearly 20 years, to become citizens, Morrow said.

“I love this country, and I’m very glad that these people who work here and do so much for us, that they are citizens,” she said. “Although we keep to the topics, we do always urge the people here to exercise their rights of citizenship, and No. 1 is to vote.”

Her first vote for president was exciting, housekeeping supervisor Carmen Hernandez said. She followed her husband from El Salvador to the United States in 1989 and has worked at Carolina Meadows for 19 years. She emphasized that no other job gives its employees such a great opportunity.

“I am thankful to God for keeping me here and working here, to Carolina Meadows for the opportunity for the residents … and the patience they have for the citizenship classes,” she said.

Sara Salgado, who works in the Carolina Meadows dining rooms, said there were no jobs in El Salvador when she and her husband decided to emigrate. Since his parents were already U.S. citizens, they sponsored his Green Card first; she followed three years later.

“I decided to do this to make progress in my life and to make my kids proud of me,” she said. “I think it was the best thing I’ve done in my life, and I’m very grateful for my tutors.”

Salgado continues to work with her tutor Maroni while pursuing her GED high school equivalency degree. Maroni, a retired UNC biology professor, emigrated from Argentina in 1967 and became a U.S. citizen in 1983.

He understands the challenges of building a life in a new country and is glad to see them succeed, he said.

“With what they learn, they can do anything they want. They can go as far as they want,” Maroni said. “I remember how important it was for me to get the citizenship, so I’m happy to help them get that.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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Steps to citizenship

You have U.S. citizenship if you are born in the United States or if, after meeting certain requirements, you are born in a foreign country to at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen. Otherwise, you can become a naturalized citizen.

You must meet these requirements to apply for naturalization:

▪ At least 18 years old when you file an application

▪ Have been a permanent resident for the past three or five years (depending on the law that applies to your circumstance)

▪ Demonstrate continuous residence and physical presence in the United States

▪ Be able to read, write and speak basic English

▪ Demonstrate good moral character

▪ Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government

▪ Demonstrate a loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution

▪ Be willing to take the Oath of Allegiance

Find more information at