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Eric's Heroes: The woman changing lives by granting the freedom of the road

Miriam Vargas gives free driving lessons to Hispanic women (Photo: KOMO News)

EVERETT, Wash. -- There is a woman in Everett who changes lives. Her name is Miriam Vargas. She is a smallish woman with short brown hair. She speaks with a Spanish accent, and when she gets excited her arms start moving and her eyes light up and her eyebrows raise and every part of her becomes involved in what she is expressing.

When we first met her, it was December. She was wearing jeans and a brown vest and she was speaking rapidly and reassuringly in Spanish to a woman named Rosalia.

"In a few minutes, we start our class," she said.

The two of them were standing next to a 1994 Honda Accord. There were a couple dents in the car, and some scratches.

Rosalia, who has six children and speaks barely a word of English, seemed nervous. Miriam closed the trunk, revealing a yellow sticker that said, "Caution: Student Driver."

The two of them stepped into the Honda, Rosalia in the driver's seat.

A few moments later, they were backing up and Miriam was saying, "Ok.. Ok..Ok..." And then when Rosalia slipped it into gear, Miriam spoke with sharp rapid-fire, "Go, go, go, go, go, go!" She snapped her fingers, and Rosalia did as she was told and off they went.

When asked, Miriam will tell you that her work with Rosalia, and others, is, "Very important."

'I love to teach'

There is a problem within the Hispanic community. It is a problem of access and freedom. It is a problem that Miriam watched for many years.

"I live close to here, and for years I watched moms walking with their kids under the rain, and I thought, "Someday I'm going to start a program."

The problem is women who don't drive and are afraid to try. Part of it is the language barrier. But Miriam says it's more than that.

"Why?" she says, "I believe it's a problem because the men say, 'You can't.. you can't do it,' because maybe there will be some accident. But no, no, no! They don't understand, they feel FREE when the wife is driving!"

Miriam recognized the problem. She understood it. And four years ago she decided to do something about it.

Rosalia is having trouble backing up into a parking spot. Miriam instructs in Spanish. Slowly, tenuously the car backs into the spot. Then Miriam pauses and says, "OK, stop!" She sits back and lets out a breath. The two of them look at one another, there is a moment of quiet relief, and then they burst into laughter.

On a different day, a young woman named Bella is learning how to navigate her world.

Bella has three children and another on the way. You wonder if maybe Bella thought, "It's now or never!"

Inside the car there are more finger snaps. And lots of "Go, go, go, go, go!"

Miriam says, "I love to teach, but I say, 'OK girls, a stop is a STOP! One, two, three GO! Because I need that they understand."

There is indeed a sharpness of tongue that can sting like a frozen lash.

"OK, you have to stay there! STOP!"

But all of it comes from a place of love. Bella knows that. She knows that Miriam is in the process of altering everything for her.

"Because in this country," she says, "for everything you need to drive. Take the children to school, take the children to the doctor, for everything we need to drive."

'She changed my life'

When Bella's lesson is over and there are no additional dents to Miriam's Honda, the two of them hug goodbye.

So, who is this woman, this irrepressible force of nature who pushes and prods Latino women to take control of their lives? Well, she is from Argentina originally. She is very proud to be an American. She is the mother of four grown children. And she is a community health worker who teaches at a community center.

And not one of the 43 women she has taught to drive were charged so much as a single dime.

I asked her about touching lives, and she answered this way: "Oh, of course, not just one life. More than one I touch. Right now it's 43 driver's licenses, it's 43 new friends, 43 new lives in my life. And many of them continue to study their G.E.D. because I say, 'OK, now you got the driver's license, you have to start to study the G.E.D.' "

We caught up to a woman named Sandra who'd had her driver's license for two weeks. Miriam taught her how to drive, and now she was experiencing a new freedom.

"I never tried to drive because many years ago my husband scared me and I left the car and never tried again. So Miriam encouraged me and said, 'You can do, you can do..' So, after 10-years I drive!" She laughs about it all. It's a happy, giddy laugh.

Sandra is a Zumba teacher, and she bounces back and forth to four different locations where she has classes. How do you thank another person for freedom?

"Ahhhhh," she says. "I don't know how to express in English, but she changed my life very, very hard. I don't know how..."

Her voice drifts off and her eyes get misty as she drives down the road. There is a long pause. And then finally she says simply, "I'm crying."

And remember Rosalia? Seven months after we saw her taking her lessons we caught up to her again. Miriam took us to Rosalia's apartment building, and out she came, with her children trailing behind her, to greet her friend.

Miriam shouted in Spanish, and then yelled, "Oh my God!" The two of them embraced and the hug lasted a long time.

Rosalia's six children lined up beside her, all dressed up in their Sunday best for the camera. They were spotless and smiling and beautiful. One by one they climbed into the family van, and then Rosalia closed the door and sat down in the driver's seat.

Confidently, proudly she backed up the van and drove away to a park down the road. It would have been unthinkable just a few short months before.

As they tore around the park in their dress clothes, one of the older sisters, Veronia, said to me in perfect English, "Now we can go. My Mom can take us wherever we want without us waiting for our Dad to come home."

Rosalia stood off in the distance watching the lights of her life chasing one another and climbing monkey bars and shouting. She smiled as she caught Miriam's eye. They both had dreamed this moment.

Perhaps one day when they're all a little older, Rosalia will sit them down and tell them about the woman who pusher her, and 42 others just like her, to learn and to be courageous.

And maybe, if there is justice in this world, one of them will listen and reply, "Oh, you mean Miriam, the woman who changes lives? Yes Mom, everyone knows about her..."

Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to heroes@komonews.com.

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