The homework might be something as simple, and as challenging, as saying something in English to a store clerk.
But that’s the whole point of the English as a Second Language classes held at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden: to help non-native speakers develop enough conversational English, and enough confidence, so they can talk to clerks, their children’s teachers, doctors and anyone else they need to communicate with.
For example, student Santa Osorio said that her son, like many other children of immigrants, only wants to speak English, even at home, so the classes help her better communicate with him.
(And her children help her when she has homework, she said, noting that they laugh whenever she mispronounces a word.)
Sister of St. Joseph Veronica Roche heads the ESL program at St. Joseph.
“Our students are new adult immigrants, mothers and fathers, people in the work force. Many of them have not had the opportunity to complete the secondary level of education in their country of origin,” she said.
The goal of the classes, she said, is helping students with simple and effective communication – and with living in a culture that is not their own.
Student Juan Trifundio, for example, is completely bilingual regarding the menu items at the restaurant where he works. But he said wants to feel more sure of himself when he’s speaking English – and not talking about food.
The textbook for the course costs $25, not an insignificant sum for some students, like Alex, who has been sending money home to his family in Mexico since coming to the United States 14 years ago, when his daughter was 4 years old. He works one full time and two part time jobs.
The teachers, like the students, are dedicated. One, Marian Fritz, takes two buses to get to St. Joseph’s to help teach a class.
The nearby Hispanic Family Center offers more intense and structured ESL classes, but those at St. Joseph are more informal, designed for individuals with limited time and basic needs. Santa Osorio, for example, attends the 8:30-10:30 a.m. class twice a week after getting her five children, ages 4-13, to school.
There is also an evening class offered, 6-8 p.m., again twice a week.
Franciscan Sister Margaret Mary Schmicker, who died in 2011 and served at St. Joseph’s more than 20 years, used to help small groups of parishioners learn English. When Sister Veronica, who worked with Sister Margaret at the parish for many years, returned to Camden a few years ago, she discovered that the Latino community had grown significantly.
She expanded on Sister Margaret’s work by starting the ESL program. More than a dozen students attended classes the first time they were held, and 40 people signed up for the second offering. (Thirty completed the semester, but those who were unable to make it to the end-of-the-year party for one reason or another still found the classes helpful, instructors said.)
The interest continues to grow, and now the parish is looking for a part time director to run the program.
Despite the classroom structure, participants seem to see themselves involved in a collaborative effort, one that benefits the teachers as well as the students.
“It is a ministry that goes both ways,” said teacher Phyllis Sanders. “You can be so enriched by someone different than you.”
A member of The Catholic Community of Christ Our Light Parish, Cherry Hill, Sanders volunteered after retiring from her full time job, and she speaks enthusiastically about students and classes. “Everyone is so incredibly welcoming to me. It gives me a better appreciation for what we take for granted.”
Instructor Marianela Nunez, 25, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic only five years ago, has helped make the program a success.
A graduate of Rowan University, Glassboro, she is now a graduate student in communications at Villanova University. “Being in the United States has been a great opportunity for me. I see people suffering, and I want to help others like me who come here for a better life and for their families,” she said.
Anyone interested in volunteering two-four hours a week to help in the evening program, please contact Sister Veronica Roche at 856-964-2776 ext. 402 or firstname.lastname@example.org