The Language and Literacy of Hope
Volunteers Make Free English as a Second Language Program Possible
Shortly before 10:00 am Monday through Thursday, you can pass St. Anthony’s Church in Oakland and see a steady flow of people climbing steep, blue stairs into a white house nearby. A vibrant fountain of learning exists within those walls: English as a Second Language (ESL) classes offered by Catholic Charities. Inside, the first thing you notice is how small the space is – yet it accommodates three classes (beginner, intermediate, advanced). There isn’t much room between them, but the students’ attentiveness creates a magical silence once the other groups begin.
Students sign in, take their seats according to proficiency, and classes start. Beginners may start recapping their alphabet and numbers; intermediates may practice verb usage; while the advanced class dives right into conversation. They come from a multitude of countries with reservoirs of experiences and hopes. Some bring siblings, friends, and significant others, each with different motivations, but the same goal: to learn and improve their English. Some students are illiterate or have little formal training in their mother language, let alone English – yet, their energy and resilience to learn is inspiring.
The teachers are all volunteers, and you have to ask, what motivated their involvement; and what keeps them coming back? The answers vary: some as an act of resistance to politics and policies with which they disagree, others because education is their heart. Dave, a volunteer teacher, discussed his motivations with me, “I wanted to be able to help people transition and have a welcoming space. I’m getting better at teaching, but being able to welcome them to our country has been important.” Another volunteer teacher, Connie, more starkly focused the service she gives, “I had been involved with a group who collected backpacks and supplies for kids. That was nice. But it wasn’t giving of your whole self. Teaching gives of your whole self.” The teachers are imprinting on a larger canvas than they realize: the community. The volunteers’ dedication to these students and this community is the foundation from which they have been able to grow this program, doing all they can to accept every person wanting to learn.
As we talk further, there’s nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to teach in the donated church space and the success of the program, but basic needs still strain them as they give tirelessly: toilet paper; heat in the winter; concerns about teacher-student ratios. They hope the program continues – emboldened by their success and inspired by the dedication of students who come voluntarily each day, “It is wonderful each day because the students want to be here. They come voluntarily to learn,” says Deanne, the spark who diligently continued pushing for the program to be continue, “Because they’re volunteers, they can come as they please. You’d like them to stay, but it doesn’t always work out.”. The teachers agree the need is dire for pre-literacy and beginner level teachers because many women who were denied formal education in their home countries need greater attention to make progress.
Originally part of Catholic Charities of the East Bay’s Refugee Resettlement program, the ESL classes were funded through a hybrid of grants and private donors and offered to students free of charge. For 35 years, the ESL program was managed by a Catholic Charities staff member. Funding shortages and the loss of a major grant lead to the loss of paid staff. The entire program was in jeopardy. It would have been a significant loss since Catholic Charities provided the only free ESL classes in the community. Then, thanks to volunteer teachers and St. Anthony’s generous donation of classroom space, Catholic Charities and the volunteers were able to bring back ESL to the community.
The students themselves also have a large role in their classes, assisting the integration of new students into the classes, assisting with the application process, and supporting each other in any way they can inside and outside of classes. They bring gifts of appreciation for their teachers and do not hesitate to tell others about the impact the classes and their teachers have had on their lives.
The relationships keep everyone coming back. The sharing, the growth, the learning, the synergy that exists every day in that space is infectious. The results – unquantifiable. You can’t quantify the joy someone feels when they are able to communicate with their child’s teacher or the clerk at the grocery; the beaming pride that exists on students from early 20s to their 60s as they master the material. A beauty that would not have been possible without the dedication of a few people who continue to give and give – and inspire those they teach to do the same.
We look every day for hope. We look for opportunities to grow and be better. Sometimes, we look alone, but you don’t have to work alone. If we look in the most unexpected places, we may find a diverse group of people fighting for the success of people that they don’t even know…yet.
If you are interested in supporting the volunteer teachers and their students of the ESL classes at St. Anthony’s church by volunteering or donating supplies please contact: DeVan Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Authored by DeVan Taylor, who is currently serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer with Catholic Charities of the East Bay, which serves the vulnerable in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. AmeriCorps is a civil society program that engages adults in public service in order to help others and meet critical needs in the community.