Last week my ESL volunteer assignment was changed to a group class, “Empowering Parents,” held at a Salt Lake City elementary school. My students are Spanish-speaking women who have little contact with English-speaking Americans. Those with babies and preschoolers bring their children, of course. Lupe’s 3-year-old son got bored during class, so I handed him a piece of paper and some colored pencils. He had no idea how to hold a pencil or what it was for until I showed him how to make marks on the paper.
American children are given paper, crayons, and pencils when they can barely toddle. Can you imagine the disadvantage for a child who has never held a pencil and never heard a book read aloud when he starts kindergarten? No one can define the limits for good that come from empowering mothers to speak English and read to their children—to give them the advantages other American children receive. But, a waiting list exists. The ESL Center in Salt Lake depends on volunteer teachers. They never have enough volunteers available to meet the needs of all the refugees and immigrants who ask for help in learning English.
Surveys show Utahns donate a record number of hours to volunteer work—mostly in Church-related service. The Church sponsors many worthwhile humanitarian and relief programs, but it doesn’t fill every need in the community. Most active Mormons I know are so loaded down with Church callings they couldn’t possibly add community service to their lives. Wouldn’t it be great if Mormons felt free to choose service projects that matched their talents and interests instead of being assigned to something for which they have no aptitude and little interest? (Tying quilts for the humanitarian center fits this category for me.)
And what if Mormons felt they could turn down Church callings that interfered with their community service? “No, I can’t serve in the Family History library. I spend two afternoons a week mentoring a girl who was failing junior high until I started working with her.”
Agency to choose service where we are most needed and most effective should not be discounted.
Monday drizzled in, gray and gloomy. The kind of day to curl up with a book in front of the fireplace. I almost wished Rosa, my ESL student, would call and cancel our morning session—not that I wanted her or her baby to be sick. I just didn’t want to go anywhere. I forgot to turn my phone on when I drove to the ESL Center in Salt Lake. At the Center, the room I normally use was occupied by a group, so I went into the computer lab and arranged a spot where I could work with Rosa. A middle-aged African woman was the only person in the lab. While waiting for Rosa, I spoke to the woman who was working on the Mavis Beacon keyboarding program. She introduced herself as Sarah from South Africa and spoke with a British accent. She asked me about my student and when I told her I was helping Rosa prepare for the citizenship test, she said, “I want to do that. Can someone help me? How much does it cost?”
Sarah had been in the U.S. for twelve years and spoke fluent English, so I explained that she just needs to learn the basics of U.S. History and Government that will be on the test. The citizenship application costs about $600 now, no refund if the applicant doesn’t pass. I showed Sarah how to access an online citizenship preparation site which I’d used with Rosa last week. Sarah had not had any study materials, but she was getting more than half the answers right on the practice test. The instant feedback thrilled her. Finally, she was on the path to her goal.
When Rosa had not arrived after ten minutes, I remembered to turn on my phone and checked messages. She had called to tell me she had a bad chest cold and wouldn’t be coming. I spent the remainder of the hour helping Sarah. She had not used a computer before and coordinating the mouse and cursor challenged her, but she persevered. She thanked me over and over. At one point she kissed my hand, looked upward and thanked God for bringing her and me together at this moment. She thanked her mother for making her go to school and learn English.
Now, I’ve taught school for over 25 years, but I’ve never had a student kiss my hand before. Sarah had learned about the ESL Center from others and had dropped in to learn to use a computer She was unaware the center could help her prepare for the citizenship test. She asked me to come back and help her again, but she needs more than the online program to prepare. I’m already committed to helping Rosa twice a week, and I doubt Rosa would be willing to share her tutor during our sessions. ESL students bond with their tutors.
I’m not able to add more sessions to my schedule at this time, so I introduced Sarah to the staff member who works with citizenship applicants. He will find either an individual tutor or a class for Sarah. I don’t know if God had a hand in my being in the lab at the time Sarah was there, but I am glad my phone was off. I’m glad my regular classroom was occupied, and I’m especially glad the ESL Center, its staff and volunteers, exist to help immigrants like Sarah and Rosa.