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Friendship grows from online lessons



Once a week Steve Milhollin meets his Spanish tutor, even though they’re thousands of miles apart.

He lives in Carter Lake, Iowa. The tutor, Claritza Morales, is in Antigua, Guatemala.

They connect online through Speak Shop, a California-based [sic, Oregon-based] firm that offers tutoring to students worldwide and employs teachers in impoverished countries.

Milhollin liked the idea of connecting with a native speaker online. But little did he know that his Spanish lessons would blossom into something more – a friendship.

Milhollin signed up with the language site last summer. There, he schedules class times, pays for lessons and virtually “meets” his tutor, Morales.

They talk through headsets and review Spanish exercises she e-mails to him. They also use online translators to look up new words.

Morales, a chatty woman in her mid-40s, doesn’t speak much English. So the translator comes in handy.

She’s married with five kids. Milhollin has met them all – online, of course. He’s a 62-year-old retired computer programmer who wears wire-rim glasses and has a 1970s Burt Reynolds mustache.

“We’ve become really great friends,” he said.

He speaks Spanish quite well. He reads at a fourth-grade level, mostly “Judy Moody” children’s books in Spanish.

Morales has helped him with the language. And with a lot more.

When Milhollin fell gravely ill, Morales was there. He lost hair and weight and he got weak. Morales stayed with him online.

As he got better, their lessons progressed. They met more frequently.

“I get a real buzz from Spanish,” Milhollin said. “It’s like classical music. I get chills down my spine whenever I hear it.”

The tutor’s support touched Milhollin. So he started digging a little more into her personal life.

He learned Antigua is home to dozens of Spanish schools that offer immersion language programs. Competition is stiff among tutors, like Morales, who offer cheap private lessons at the schools in the summer to students from the United States, Europe, Japan and Korea.

But in the offseason, many tutors have no work.

So companies such as Speak Shop have sprung up in recent years, offering online language classes through videoconferencing.

Tutors set their own price, between $7 and $10 per hour. Speak Shop founder Clay Cooper said the company doesn’t take any of their earnings, instead charging students an initial fee. However, tutors who use the local Spanish school’s computers to give online classes pay a small fee for the space.

Morales didn’t have a home computer. She would drive – or sometimes walk – an hour or so to a nearby school to log online to conduct her lessons.

“I felt bad,” Milhollin said. “Instead of spending time with her family, she was tutoring me. I wanted to help.”

So he bought her a computer.

“It was a wonderful gesture,” Cooper said. “I was really impressed with his generosity. He wanted to make sure Claritza could tutor more students but also have time with her children.”

Indeed she does. Morales works from her home and makes twice as much tutoring.

As things turned out, Milhollin was her lifesaver.

• Contact the writer: 444-1075,