Henry Lamb/Photowire/BEImages
May 19, 2015 01:15 PM

When Camila Alves first moved to the United States from Brazil when she was 15 years old, she couldn’t read, write or speak English. “I didn’t speak a word of English, zero, and I didn’t have a lot of money,” says Alves, 33, of her early teen years, before she became a model and long before meeting her husband-to-be, Matthew McConaughey.

Alves enrolled in night classes at Redondo Beach High School, south of Los Angeles, California, and, along with a classroom of adults – many of whom couldn’t read or write in their own country’s native language, much less in English – she found inspiration in a very special elderly woman.

“There was a teacher who was really important in [showing] me that I could learn this language, that I could learn to communicate in this country. She was probably in her late 70s or so, and she was a sweetheart,” she recalls.

“If you didn’t have a ride, she would literally drive to your house and pick you up and take you to class. She would get up on the table to make sure we understood what she was trying to say, she would do dancing and singing and go above and beyond so we could learn. That’s somebody who did change my life.”

This personal experience with a special teacher was but one reason Alves recently jumped at the chance to partner with Target on their education initiative, Thanks a Billion, a program committed to raising $5 million for schools across the country; it’s all part of Target’s $1 billion commitment to education by the end of 2015.

“If you think about it, all of us have one or more teachers who were instrumental,” says Alves, whose two oldest kids, Levi, 6, and Vida, 5, are in school (her youngest is 2-year-old Livingston). “Education is so important. Education is a way of empowering people, it opens up so many doors and is fundamental to everybody. And teachers are not often appreciated in the way that they should be.”

For her part, and as part of Target’s social campaign to express thanks to favorite teachers, Alves recognized a teacher and a coach from Warren Easton High School in New Orleans, a school where the Just Keep Livin Foundation, co-founded by Alves and McConaughey, runs one of their after-school fitness and wellness programs for high school students. (For every such message of “teacher gratitude” uploaded through the campaign’s website, Target.com/ThanksaBillon, Target will donate $25 to a school of the person’s choice.)

“Today, those teachers on the ground are the ones who make a huge difference with all the work that we do [with the foundation],” she says. “It doesn’t matter how much money Matthew and I raise, the charity events we put together, the programs and the curriculum, the ideas that we have – none of that matters if we don’t have the right teachers on the ground. They’re really helping us change those kids’ lives.”

Fortunately, the next generation of McConaugheys have embraced being little students. “My kids love going to school. When my son started going to kindergarten, we asked him, ‘How was it?’ and his only complaint was that he didn’t get to stay in there longer,” says Alves, a lifestyle expert and PEOPLE blogger. Levi and Vida, she says, “have fun going to school. They enjoy learning.”

If ever the kids do balk at going to school or if they’re being lazy, Alves finds a teaching moment. “I start doing scenarios for them,” she says. “Throughout the day, we’ll have things happen and I’ll [ask], ‘Without [school], how will you be able to read the sign?’, ‘How would you be able to count money?’, or if we’re opening a toy, I’ll say, ‘How are you going to be able to build the toy if you can’t read the instructions?’ ”

Most important, says Alves, the best teachers make learning fun. When she reads to the kids – the Jigsaw Jones Mystery series are currently popular in the McConaughey home – “I get into characters, every character has a different voice.”

But it’s those in the front of the classroom who carry the heaviest load. “At the end of the day, it’s the teacher that makes the difference,” says Alves.

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