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Teaching English engages church members

By Janae Cepeda

As refugees arrived in Spokane after the Vietnam War, Country Homes Christian Church decided to found an English as a Second Language school in 1979.

The one-on-one, volunteer-tutor-based program seeks to meet the full needs of people, by giving its students a sense of respect and dignity, said the new director Calli Foxworth.

Rick Caverley and Dong Jin
Rick Caverly and his student Dong Jin

“Kindness and compassion help students cope with the loneliness and estrangement that can be part of living in a new country,” she said. “When a once-prominent Muslim family from Iran was looked down on, we tried to give them back their pride through our program.  That is what we hope to do for our students.”

The first students, who were Vietnamese, Hmong and Laotion, knew little or no English and had few resources for the job market.

Because the school provides tutors, as well as nursery care, to help prepare new immigrants and refugees for life in the United States, it equips students not only for employment but also for college and citizenship.

Aware that some students—especially the elderly—were not prepared socially or emotionally for the transition, Faith and Larry Leaf stepped in.

This octogenarian husband-wife duo has been tutoring three times a week, every week for nearly 14 years despite health problems. Faith said teaching has helped them to manage their health and has given them “the utmost gift” of helping others.

They came to Spokane 14 years ago after having traveled the world. They were debating where God would need their church home to be when Faith saw the banner outside Country Homes Church about the need for tutors.

After having taught in countries such as Japan
, Korea, Italy, Denmark and Russia, and being sympathetic to the aggravation that comes from not being able to adjust to a new language or culture, Faith sensed her calling.

“Each day I look for something that makes us laugh in what we are doing,” she said. “We can pick up the most from children, as they pick up words from us.

“For example, a Korean woman studying with us has a two-year-old child. He is not enrolled in school but he goes around saying a phrase he picked up from his mother’s teacher: ‘Oh, my goodness!’

Faith and Larry adopted two Korean children, Grace and Anne.  Adopted in 1976, Anne, the youngest, still was unable to speak at five years old. 

“I was at the freezer one morning and it was jammed. When I pried it open, the contents toppled out onto the floor, hitting my foot. In frustration, I muttered a curse word,” Faith said.  “I’ll never forget seeing her in the doorway.  Her first word in English was that word. I learned to watch what I said because children are vacuums.”

Faith considers her day incomplete without a challenge. She is now tutoring a 55-year-old man who recently emigrated from China. He is a skilled electrician and certified plumber, but cannot find employment because of his lack of proficiency in English.  So he works as a cook.
Her goal is to help him find a job and provide him with hope that he can use his talents. In session after session, she uses plumbing manuals and technical vocabulary to translate them using Japanese ideograms, similar to Chinese characters, so he can be prepared to take his apprenticeship exam.

According to Doni Walker, a former director who served 25 years, many tutors have experienced this type of bond and have come away having been taught incalculable lessons in life. She told of an elderly man whose wife had terminal cancer.  Because his wife was his world, he became utterly lost without her. He became a tutor, but rarely socialized outside of class.  After a year, she began to see a change in him. 

“The ESL center gave him a safe place to go back into the world and learn to love again,” she said.

The bond between tutor and student tends to continue after the students “graduate.”
Many keep in touch with their tutors even if they return to their home country.

“It is inspirational that someone can have an impact such as this in so little time,” said Doni. 
Students who apply are put on a waiting list until matched with teachers. Instruction is free, because those who teach one-to-one or in small groups are volunteers.

Students stay for as little or as much time as they need in order to feel comfortable and proficient in English. About 20 students participate from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Rev. John Temple Bristow, pastor of Country Homes Christian Church, said the church is committed to sponsoring the program because of the personal growth it affords both tutors and students.

“It is beneficial to all involved and helps the students progress in their lives in the community,” he said.

Half of the volunteers are church members, John said, and the congregation is enthusiastic about the school, which is one of the church’s main ministries.  Tutors have also helped some students with paperwork to gain appropriate legal status, working with the immigration office.

For information, call 466-3414.

Copyright © March 2009 - The Fig Tree