By Mark Haney
The Catholic Weekly
GRAND RAPIDS — For 13 years the Grand Rapids Dominicans and a small army of dedicated volunteers have helped recent émigrés to this city battle the English language into submission.
Using part of the convent at St. Adalbert Basilica, WORD (Writing Opportunities Reading Discoveries) Project ESL (English as a Second Language) has helped 700 people through one of the few five-day-a-week programs around. Classes are offered four days a week, but each day — Monday morning, Tuesday night, Wednesday morning, Thursday night — represents a different group of people. Fridays are open days, when people can come in and practice on the program’s 10 computers.
The project began when one of the Grand Rapids Dominicans was doing home visitations with the large Hispanic population on the northwest corner of the city. She discovered the people needed more ESL classes. At the time, Grand Rapids Public Schools was offering classes, but participants had to commit to attending three out of the four days it was offered each week.
“Our people just couldn’t do that,” said Sr. Carmen Rostar, the program’s director and only paid employee, “so we established the program at the old convent at the Basilica of St. Adalbert.”
“It started being for the west side but it really is open to anyone in the city. They get put on a list and so when we get an opening we just call the next person on the list.”
The program takes on about 50 people each semester — September-December, January-May and six weeks in the summer.
While 18 is the youngest age allowed into the program, the clientele tends to be older — 18 are age 30-39, 12 are 40-49, five are 50-59 and only three are age 20-29.
“We did have a woman from Russia who was in her 80s,” Sr. Rostar said, “but now our oldest student is 60.
“They are mostly Hispanic (The largest (29) client group is from Mexico, followed by Vietnam (7), Guatemala (4) and Colombia and Spain with one each), though we do have some Vietnamese. Through the years we have had people from Africa and Russia. Right after the Bosnian War we had more Bosnians in the program.”
The sessions are one-on-one — one client to one volunteer. While the clients may not be fluent in English, the teachers do not have to know the client’s native tongue.
“Pretty much when the people come to us, they have a beginning understanding of English,” Sr. Rostar said. “Even our Hispanic students who know no English, we are able to use pictures and a lot of flash cards and build on everyday language. The very first lesson we would cover with people like that would be to name the family members, like husband, wife, and then the human body, especially for women, because it is so important that they be able to go to the doctor and explain. There are some core lessons we teach — clothing, food, things like that. So we have 12 basic lessons we teach in order to grow their vocabulary first, then we start putting them in sentences. So we are able to communicate.
“Usually if they are fluent in their own language, if they can read and write their own language and know the structure, there are a lot of words that we have in common.”
About one-third of our volunteer staff is from Aquinas College or from Grand Valley State University, where students who have a background in Spanish or a foreign language want to do service work. Five other sisters are among the volunteers. A lot of the volunteers are people who know members of the congregation, through the Mission and Ministry booklet the Dominicans sends out to supporters.
“We don’t really advertise,” Sr. Rostar said. “I do go to a couple of volunteer fairs every year. But people show up.”
Then there are people like Mike Chatel, a retired phone company employee who has been a volunteer for 11 years.
“I enjoy helping people,” he said. “I derive a great amount of psychological income from it.
“Most of the people we tutor have backgrounds from Mexico and Central America. They are hard-working people and by the time they get off work and come to see me at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, they’ve had a full day. And yet, to a person, they have a good attitude, a good work ethic so I know they are interested in learning. And when someone is interested in learning, it makes it easier for me as a tutor.
“It is a small thing to do and yet I have seen people grow in their ability to understand and speak English. It is something small, but I can do it and I have had some small success, so that is why I do it.”
“I have a tutor who works in the Social Security Administration office,” said Sr. Rostar, “and she sees the pain of the other side with our Hispanic population — people who thought they were paying into Social Security but they aren’t or they haven’t because they haven’t been documented. So she says it is so nice to be able to work with people and to help them with their language. She loves it. In fact she volunteers two nights a week.”
The program also works with Maureen Downer at Michigan Works to help the students get jobs and the volunteers also help the clients with citizenship classes.
They use a national test to determine if the students are ready to graduate. If they score at a level of 220-230, Sr. Rostar said, “then they are ready to graduate because then they can be admitted to junior college or college-level English classes.”
They also graduate if they have been with the program for six years.
“If they have been with us for six years,” she said, “if they are fluent enough in the language and they have a job, then we graduate them and take someone else who hasn’t had the opportunity for any English classes.”
For a new student, each session starts with items like weather, food, family at a basic level. They start learning core words and then teach articles — a, an, the, etc. — and then who, what, where, when and how.
“And we teach patterns of the language,” Sr. Rostar said. “In other words, how to build a sentence. And that begins with one of the first lessons, when they learn pronouns. So then we would say, ‘I am,’ or ‘My name is,’ or ‘My husband’s name is,’ or ‘My wife’s name is,’ ‘My children are ….’ We begin to show them the patterns of language.
“When they get a little more proficient and have a better vocabulary, then we go to a wonderful series of readers, which offer really interesting stories that they would then back up by using the vocabulary used in the story. They would use those new words in a different context at the back of the story.”
At that level they also teach them how to gather information and make inferences from what they have read. There also will be grammar to learn and homework to do.
They also apply what the students learn to real-life applications, such as how the word might appear in a recipe, or an application form, etc.
Every desk has a notebook inside, “Grammar at Your Fingertips,” the students use. “There is a wealth of information in there,” Sr. Rostar said. “There are conversation starters, grammar pieces, dictation sentences, where the teacher says the sentence and the student writes it down. In that exercise we come to learn whether they have mastered the sound of the vowels.”
The learning starts the moment a client walks in the door. Sr. Rostar greets each of them as do the tutors. “So they always start each lesson,” she said, “with some personal hospitality kind of lesson.”
To start each 1½-hour session, the tutors ask the client how work is going, how their family is, other conversation-starting questions that can reveal the student’s mastery of the language.
This program runs on grants from the Grand Rapids Foundation, the Dominican Sisters, from the state and help through the years from Telamon Corp., the Adrian Dominicans, Hesperia Adult Community Schools, St. Joseph the Worker Parish and Justice for our Neighbors.
“Perhaps the greatest and most recent collaboration is with Grand Rapids Community College,” Sr. Rostar said. “Our location enabled us to offer citizenship classes at their West Side Learning Corner and in the first two classes alone, we were able to assist 35 students in the study of citizenship and completion of their citizenship forms. Due to this resounding response and a wonderful working relationship, we are offering classes at GRCC again this year.”
Since Sr. Rostar is the only employee, the basic costs are rent and utilities. The grants, then, have helped provide a computer in each room and the materials the tutors use.
“So they (the tutors) are not scrounging around for teaching tools,” Sr. Rostar said. “It is all very orderly, very easy for them to find materials to work with. I think that is another plus.
“We have some people who are not literate in their own language so we have to buy special books for them. With them we start with basic grammar things.”
The proof of the program’s success is in its tenure and the tenure of long-term volunteers like Chatel.
“I may get more out of it from them than they get from me,” he said. “I enjoy it. I look forward to it. It is not easy sometimes. Sometimes at the end of the evening I am psychologically and physically drained. Not because it is hard, but because I’m not a professional teacher. There might be a better way to do it but I keep on doing what I am doing. It seems to be working.
“If I am able to do this and make a difference, then anyone can do it. I will say this, sometimes I have my doubts. At the end of some sessions I think, I don’t really know because I didn’t see the light bulb go off. But I keep coming back because the people keep coming back, so they must be getting something worthwhile from what I give them.”†