Erie House Celebrates Esteemed Volunteer Nancy Gebhardt for Contributions to ESL Program
September 27, 2016 | Chicago, IL
Nancy Gebhardt conducts an activity on her last day volunteering at Erie House. As fall courses begin, the her presence will be missed in the Little Village community. FILE PHOTO
English as a Second Language (ESL) classes resumed at Erie Neighborhood House this month after breaking for the summer. The free classes are funded by Chicago Tribune Charities, Dollar General Literacy Foundation and the Illinois Community College Board, and they are offered in a multi-level format mornings and evenings, Monday through Thursday, at Erie House’s site in Little Village.
This year, however, the program will be without highly esteemed volunteer Nancy Gebhardt, who moved to suburban Huntley, Ill., over the summer.
Gebhardt arrived at Erie House in fall 2012. She had been teaching writing courses at University of Illinois – Chicago while simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) when she heard about the opportunity to volunteer at Erie House. “Since I had teaching experience, I figured I’d give it a try,” she recalls.
The placement seemed like a good fit from the get go. Gebhardt immediately began forming a bond with the students she’d interact with, learning bits and pieces about their lives during activities that invited them to share stories from their own lives.
“They accepted me into their community,” says Gebhardt, emphasizing how important that aspect was to her—and why it will be hard for her to adjust to life apart from volunteering at Erie House. “When I drive home from Erie House, it’s the best night of my week,” she explains. “It’s just a great place to be.”
Gebhardt’s role varied throughout her four years at Erie House, ranging from facilitating whole group activities to working one-on-one with students. The work has been valuable, and not just because of the professional growth she has experienced (she continued volunteering even after gaining employment as a TESOL instructor at BIR Training Center).
“I feel like I’m giving back something that was given to me,” Gebhardt explains. Her grandparents immigrated to the US from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, and they learned English at a settlement house agency in Chicago. It’s fitting, perhaps, that she would end up helping a new generation of immigrants learn English at the oldest operating settlement house in the city.
Gebhardt says she is astonished by the level of commitment her ESL students bring. “I admire the people who come here,” she says. “Do you know anybody who goes to school 4 or 5 nights a week after working 60, 65, 70 hours a week? It amazes me.”
Erie House literacy coordinator Rachel Serra indicates that ESL students understand what is at stake. “It’s about learning the language so that you can communicate and function in your community,” she says. “They understand how the language will impact their lives.”
That being said, a little extra motivation never hurts, and Serra believes Gebhardt played a significant role in getting students to show up consistently. “The students recognized how dedicated Nancy was to their learning,” she says. “Anytime someone is really dedicated to the students and their needs, they can tell. Nancy valued being here and working with the students.”
To express their gratitude, Gebhardt’s students threw a party for her on her last day volunteering in the program. The evening featured a potluck meal topped off by an elegantly decorated cake. One of the students brought his guitar and played music while others chatted with each other and took selfies with their beloved volunteer.
It was a fitting way to say thank you to a volunteer who had given so much.