As early as 9:15 a.m., students and volunteers begin arriving at St. Damien Parish’s Culliney Hall to enjoy coffee and cookies before the 9:30 start of English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Spanish-speaking students from the parish’s predominantly Mexican Hispanic community take their seats at round tables, and as the tables fill it’s apparent that there are almost as many volunteers as there are students.
On this Monday, 12 students have arrived for class along with about as many volunteers from the parish and surrounding community. Some volunteers take young children to the hall’s library and play with them while their mothers are in class. But most volunteers sit at tables to work with one or two students.
“This is absolutely unique. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said teacher Mary Ellen Waddell. She is a certified teacher with the Cape May County Technical School District, which provides ESL classes among other services and assigned Waddell to teach the Ocean City parish’s class.
“That’s the very best way they can learn, with that one on one attention. It allows for more practice time during class. I think of myself as a facilitator. I get them started and then [the volunteers] take the ball and run with it,” Waddell said.
The high level of interest among parishioners and other community members to volunteer with the class has created a welcoming environment for English language learning.
“The beauty of this model is that it fosters community,” said Joe Sosnowsky, St. Damien’s parishioner and class organizer. “The Mexican community has a lot to offer us. That integration of two communities is really important. We’re teaching English, but it’s bigger than that.”
Sosnowsky and his wife Ginny started the classes in January 2014, offering them on Mondays in the morning. Classes took a break for the summer months and resumed in October with classes offered both in the morning and evening.
Attendance varies but has been as high as 19 students in the morning and 14 in the evening. The morning classes are made up mostly of stay-home mothers while evening classes are largely composed of men who work during the days.
The child-care program takes place only in the mornings, with volunteers watching infants and children too young to go to school. The program has about 16 volunteers on the books, some of whom volunteer at both sessions.
Student Azucena Caballero has two children in school and is expecting a third. She said it was her children that inspired her to begin taking English classes.
“My youngest wants me to read to him in English,” Caballero said. “It was for my children that I began to take English seriously. It’s a battle [learning a new language] but I leave everything in God’s hands. He has the last word.”
“I want to be able to teach my children,” added Azucena’s friend Guadalupe Mejia. Her young son darted between the library child-care room and his mother’s side during class.
Joe and Ginny Sosnowsky have been taking Spanish classes at the Ocean City Library for about two years.
“We know how hard it is to learn another language,” Ginny Sosnowsky said. “When we learned about the Mexican community here we saw there was a need and we thought we could do it.”
The parish has a large Spanish-speaking community and an active Spanish ministry offering weekly Spanish Mass, charismatic prayer group, Wednesday night reflections and monthly fellowship nights. During Holy Week, Christmas, and feast days such as the December feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the parish holds Hispanic processions and celebrations.
The parish has used its own funds and funding from the diocese to offer scholarships to three Hispanic students currently studying at St. Elizabeth College. Last year, 25 men from the Spanish-speaking community joined the parish Knights of Columbus council, and since then, 18 have advanced to the rank of third degree.
Father Alvaro Diaz has been parochial vicar of Hispanic ministry for St. Damien Parish and St. Joseph Parish in nearby Somers Point for three years. He said he was grateful to St. Damien’s pastor, Father Michael Rush, and to the community for their support of Hispanic ministry in the parish.
“The integration of our Hispanic and Anglo communities has been very positive,” Father Diaz said. “We are the people of God, we are the family of the Lord. We are called to be open to one another.”
For additional information about the program contact Joe Sosnowsky at 856-371-2008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.