Interview with Mercedes Lemp, Director of Language ETC

Since last July, Language ETC has had a new director, Mercedes Lemp. Actually, though, she isn’t really new: in fact, we’re welcoming back an old friend who knows the organization well. Mercedes was LETC’s second director, from 2002 to 2006. She then took time out to serve for four years as director of the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs in the Fenty administration. Fenty’s electoral loss was our gain, because Mercedes is now back at LETC for a second term. We’re glad to have her.

Mercedes, what is your background, and how did you get interested in running an ESL program?

I came to the United States from Spain when I was nine years old. I didn’t speak any English when I arrived, but I grew up in the Bethesda area and went to English-speaking schools. I did my undergrad at the University of Maryland and then went to business school at George Washington University.

While I was studying at GW, I lived in the Columbia Heights neighborhood and began to interact with the Latino community. It was the late 1980s, early ’90s, so many people were coming into the area from Central and South America. I earned my MBA and worked in information technology for a while. But I wanted to work with Latinos in the community — to use my business skills to help the community.

I worked at the Office on Latino Affairs for four years but lost my job when Fenty was voted out. The director position at LETC was vacant, and board members asked me to apply. I thought, why not? When I worked there before, I really enjoyed it.

Mercedes Lemp (center) with Pedro Biaggi, a DJ at El Zol Radio, and Cecilia Arce, of the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The three helped distribute gifts to children at a Three Kings Day event sponsored by the DC Police Department’s Latino Liaison Unit.

How has LETC changed since you were last here?

It’s a lot more professionalized. There are more staff. Processes are in place for managing enrollment, dealing with donors, coordinating volunteers. And our volunteer pool has grown — we always had a good number of volunteers, but now we have even more. Also, the course offerings have expanded. When I was director previously, I added daytime classes to the schedule, and now we’re thinking about adding even more of them. For evening classes we’re already operating at capacity in terms of our room use. We just added a bunch of free conversation classes this term, including Monday and Wednesday mornings, and we’ve added computer classes in English. We have also recently introduced a community service fair every term.

LETC director Mercedes Lemp (right) with some of our terrific staff: from left, Steve White, weekday volunteer coordinator; Kevin Burgess, Literacy*AmeriCorps member; and Ashley Lipps, program director.

What do you see as LETC’s biggest strengths? What do we offer that’s special?

I think, above all, it’s our all-volunteer program. We have over 300 volunteers each term — our volunteer retention rate is almost 80 percent, meaning that four out of five volunteers return to teach again. They do it because they’re enthusiastic and enjoy teaching. It gives a different feel to the classroom, compared to a school where some teachers may be working mainly for the paycheck.

Another great strength is our board. We have a very dedicated board of directors, and the majority of them are also volunteer teachers. Other nonprofit directors I know often complain about their boards, how hard it is to get people active, but we’ve always had a really great board at Language ETC.

Are there areas where LETC can grow in the next few years?

I see opportunities for growing the computer program. We have basic and intermediate computer classes, in both English and Spanish; we could add advanced classes. We have a great language lab that we could be making better use of.  We recently got a grant to upgrade our server.

Also, I’d like to see us expand our relationship with corporate sponsors. Some companies, notably Deloitte, send us volunteers, but we also need to attract more corporate grants.

Thanks, Mercedes!

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