Ladies of Charity outreach now involves education

Volunteers teaching English as a second language; response to classes has been strong

By Bill Brewer

The more you know, the more you need to know. So it stands to reason that the more you learn, the more you need to learn. Nowhere is that more apt than at the Ladies of Charity in Knoxville, where a group of area immigrants is participating in the organization’s first English as a Second Language class to overcome a host of challenges they face by living in a new country while trying to overcome a language barrier.

The ESL class is a new service offered by the Diocese of Knoxville nonprofit organization that provides goods and services to lower-income residents. It operates a thrift store, an emergency-assistance program, and services that include food packages, clothing, rent and utility assistance, career clothing and work footwear, and baby supplies including cribs and car seats.

Susan Unbehaun, Ladies of Charity executive director, explained that the ESL class was made possible by grants totaling nearly $1,000 from the Akima Club and the Juanita H. Fasola Foundation.

Students in the Ladies
of Charity’s English as a Second Language class find the course work very hands on, with volunteers ready and able to help them become fluent in English.

“The idea started back in January at the Knox County Welcome Center, an organization of the (Knox County) schools that welcome people from different countries who do not have English as their first language,” Mrs. Unbehaun said, adding that Welcome Center officials visited the Ladies of Charity facility and approved it as a classroom setting for an ESL class.

The new Ladies of Charity class and its instructors have been certified through the Knoxville International Network and began instruction June 5. Response to the class offering was better than expected.

“We received funding at the end of May, and we gave ourselves a week and a half to get students. We had a full class right away,” Mrs. Unbehaun said. “It was really a great response, and it’s going well.”

As part of the two-hour class held once a week, the Ladies of Charity offers child-care on site, with supervision by volunteer mentors who are VIRTUS-trained.

Instructors work one-on-one with the students using the curriculum of Intercambio Uniting Communities based in Boulder, Colo. The first session includes 16 lessons in level one. The class costs $30 per student for all the lessons, and financial assistance is provided for those who need it.

“Ladies of Charity has embraced this program and made it an extension of the many tasks it offers to help improve the lives of the many people that they serve, especially those in our migrant communities,” said Chester Pun-chuen, a Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner who worked with Mrs. Unbehaun to develop the class and is one of the volunteer class instructors.

Mr. Pun-chuen said the class currently has four volunteer teachers and nine “encouragers” who are mentors acting as coaches for the students. There are 10 Hispanic students on level one from Holy Ghost Church, the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, All Saints Church, St. Teresa of Kolkata Church, St. Mary Church, and Columbus Home, operated by Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.

He explained that some of the volunteers who are ESL-certified teachers by the Knoxville International Network as well as the Ladies of Charity-scheduled ESL program are listed with the Knoxville International Network, Bridge Refugee Services, and Knox County Schools as an approved program for people who want to learn English.

“We have been getting student referrals from Catholic Charities and surrounding churches,” he said. “So far, our current students are showing a lot of progress, and their level of confidence in speaking English is building. They have all been regular in their attendance and have been engag ing in their participation.”

While the classes are geared to parents, not all of the ESL students are adults. Carlos Herrera is a student at West High School and a volunteer at Ladies of Charity. He is going through the class to increase his ability to speak English.

“I like the class. I can speak English a little bit, but I want to learn more,” Carlos said.

Mrs. Unbehaun and Mr. Pun-chuen said plans are to offer semester classes from September to December, with registration in August; January to May, with registration starting in December; and June to August, with registration starting in May.

They noted that registrations are a way to gauge the level of proficiency for those taking the English-language classes, and there also is a test to categorize what classes to offer.

Mrs. Unbehaun said the next ESL class will have a Japanese student, and an Arabic woman is on staff to assist with instruction of anyone from the Middle East.

“The isolation from not knowing English, especially for women, is very high. If you can teach them to communicate, they then can communicate with their children’s teachers and doctors. Instead of having their child as an interpreter, now they are understanding that communication and the dialogue between the teacher and the parent, one on one, instead of being treated like the child in that relationship. They can then do their banking, go to the post office, go to the grocery store, and ride the bus. These are very basic goals, but they are very important,” Mrs. Unbehaun said.

She said the new ESL classes are another example of the broad base of services the Ladies of Charity offers to those in need.

The Ladies of Charity for decades has been serving communities in Tennessee, including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, and Memphis — all communities that are experiencing population growth, especially from immigrant groups.

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