WINCHESTER — Maria Ayala and Marino Alvarado left El Salvador nearly 30 years ago to build brighter futures in the United States.
They both found good jobs at the Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant at 2230 S. Pleasant Valley Road — Ayala has been there for eight years, Alvarado for 11 — but they have been limited to working in the kitchen because their English skills aren’t proficient.
Ayala, 44, speaks broken English but has trouble reading and writing the language. Alvarado, 59, only knows a handful of English words and phrases.
On Monday, the two women clocked out from their morning shifts at Chick-fil-A as their tutor, Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area volunteer Lesley Covington, arrived at the restaurant with her “Ventures Basic” textbook and had the women write down a list of common English words such as “dishes,” “breakfast,” “grass” and “making.”
Covington, who has been working with Ayala and Alvarado from 2 to 3 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays for six months, said writing vocabulary words makes it easier for her students to learn and use them in sentences.
Chick-fil-A franchise owner/operator Chuck Guffee covers the cost of the tutoring sessions.
“If we offer our employees English as a second language, that will help them here and in the community, and will help us communicate with our employees,” Guffee said. “Plus, if they like it and learn, they may tell their family and friends, and they in turn may come to work for us. It’s a win-win situation.”
He gives full credit for the tutoring initiative to one of his employees, Chick-fil-A recruiter Anne Elgin, who was involved with a similar language improvement program at her previous job with Trex Co. in Winchester.
Elgin said Mark Sieffert, executive director of Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area, immediately supported the idea of tutoring employees in Guffee’s two Winchester Chick-fil-A locations — the one on South Pleasant Valley Road and the other in the Rutherford Crossing shopping center at 112 Market St.
“He said, ‘We’re trying to get [Literacy Volunteers’ services] into restaurants,’ and I said, ‘Well, we’re trying to make it a benefit for our employees,’” Elgin said.
Four Chick-fil-A employees — two at each location — signed up for the inaugural course, which is taught inside the restaurants so workers won’t have to worry about transportation to a classroom.
Covington stepped up to instruct Ayala and Alvarado at the South Pleasant Valley Road restaurant. She had previously worked with Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area as a math tutor, but this is her first time working with language students.
In a way, she’s learning just as much as she’s teaching. Covington said she can’t speak Spanish beyond the words and phrases that have been shared by Ayala and Alvarado.
“The textbook is great, and Maria helps a lot with translating for Marina,” Covington said. “They’re enthusiastic, and it makes me want to do it even more.”
“She’s a good teacher,” Ayala said. “I love her.”
Guffee employs about 150 people at his two Chik-fil-A locations. Of those, he said 25 or 30 could benefit from the English as a second language course offered by Chick-fil-A and Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area.
Elgin said she already has a list of workers eager to take the course, and more sessions will be offered as soon as Literacy Volunteers lines up enough volunteer tutors.
Being more fluent in English will make it easier for Chick-fil-A employees like Ayala and Alvarado to advance within the company, possibly to management positions, Guffee said.
“As time goes on, our community more and more is made up of Hispanics, and we need to be a good community partner to them,” he said. “We’ve all got to grow together.”