SAN RAFAEL (CBS 5) – When you’re just learning English, the prospect of reading, writing and speaking in public can be pretty intimidating. But hundreds of students are soaring in self-confidence, thanks to this week’s Jefferson Award winner.

Gail Siegel and her students recently stood beaming with pride while looking at the mural they created outside the Canal Alliance resource center in San Rafael. Painting their vision of the world was a life-changing experience.

“You could see the confidence growing in their ability to effect change and make a difference in their community,” Siegel remembered.

Siegel is the President of ForWords, a nonprofit that teaches underprivileged children literacy, speaking and technology skills. The yearlong mural project brought students like 16-year-old Brenda Perez face-to-face with her public speaking fears.

“It was scary,” Perez said.

Scary because not only did the students have to research and write about the mural, they had to argue before city designers and planners to get the permit.

“The permit process is lengthy and complicated,” Siegel explained. “By the third or fourth time we went back, the students were proudly standing up, happily answering all the questions of the different commissioners.”

Suddenly, public speaking wasn’t so scary for Perez.

“I feel more confident now, more comfortable,” she reported with a smile. Siegel, a teacher, and her husband Larry, founded ForWords in 2007, after the death of their daughter Catie, who’s painted in the mural.

Catie wanted disadvantaged young people to have a good education.

ForWords is teaching 450 children to read, write and speak English well. For many, English is their second language.

Raquel Saunders of the Canal Alliance said Siegel is equipping students to break their family’s cycle of poverty.

“It’s the first step to having something that’s tangible for them, to really have them believe in themselves, and have the experience that college is something they can attain,” said Saunders.

The nonprofit hires teachers from the University of California’s Bay Area Writing Project to mentor students at the Canal Alliance, San Rafael High School, and Helms Middle School in Richmond and provide support for teachers.

Students take pride in writing and publishing their own books. They write and perform history lessons on stage and journal science experiments.

Through ForWords, Seigel has empowered more than 700 kids; some have graduated from high school and college. Seventeen-year-old Pablo Landaverde plans to be one of them.

“She’s like my role model,” Landaverde explained. “I want to be just like her in my future.”

“It’s just so satisfying and very exciting for us,” Siegel added.

So for teaching life-changing skills to hundreds of North Bay students, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Gail Siegel.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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