Erie House Program Bridges Language and Culture Divides
April 25, 2016 | Chicago, IL
Volunteer tutor Barbara Reed reads alongside community literacy student Maria Alonso during a tutoring session at Erie House. FILE PHOTO
Jubilar, the Spanish translation of retire, is derived from the Latin root jubilo. And seeing as jubilo denotes an “exclamation of joy”—think jubilation or jubilee—the Spanish translation seems more appropriate for the occasion. It is, after all, an opportunity to explore new places, try new things and meet new people.
So when Barbara Reed retired from a career working in the nonprofit sector, she was eager to take advantage of the new season of life she had entered. “One of the things I wanted to do was learn Spanish a bit more,” she says. Reed explains that she liked the idea of learning the language, and she knew it would open a new world for her both at home and abroad.
That journey began at Erie Neighborhood House after she received a referral during a trip to the dentist. “My dental hygienist speaks Spanish, and I told her I was trying to improve my Spanish skills,” she recalls. Familiar with Erie House, the hygienist encouraged her to explore volunteer opportunities there.
Reed first connected with Susana Ortiz, community literacy program coordinator at Erie House, and soon thereafter began tutoring and leading conversation groups in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood.
Ortiz’s program is funded by the Illinois Secretary of State’s Adult Volunteer Literacy Grant and taps into a strong volunteer network to provide individualized instruction and support to adult learners. This line item is temporarily suspended due to the state budget impasse, and funding for adult education has generally declined over the past several years despite a prevalent need for such services among immigrant and low-income adult learners.
Nevertheless, Ortiz has worked hard to ensure Erie House continues to deliver quality services to adult learners in the community. In all, the program reached 261 individuals last year through one-on-one and group tutoring services. Of those students who accumulated at least 50 hours of tutoring, 94% bettered their score—and nearly three-fourths improved an entire level—on the Basic English Skills Test (BEST).
Maria Jesus Alonso, or Maja, as her friends call her, is one of these exceptional students. She moved to the Humboldt Park neighborhood on a fiancée visa last year from Málaga, Spain, and joined Reed’s one-on-one tutoring group in the community literacy program at Erie House shortly thereafter.
“My English is growing with Barbara as my teacher,” she says following a group tutoring session. Alonso has already improved to Level 3 on the BEST, and she attributes her success in part to the role Reed has played. “Barbara is fantastic. She is very intuitive and adapts to my needs as a student.”
Alonso is still awaiting her work permit, but she feels as if the Erie House program is equipping her well to enter the workforce. “When I have the opportunity to work, I will have the skills necessary to succeed,” she says. Her daughter, Maria, also participates in the program plans to begin taking classes at Truman College on the city’s North Side.
For Reed, the program is mutually beneficial. “It’s a two-way street of sorts,” she says. “It is an opportunity for me to learn more about the immigrant experience and practice my Spanish here and there, and it’s also a chance for me to help people with their English skills.”
She enjoys introducing her students to pop culture and classic literature during tutoring sessions, and she often brings in newspaper articles covering current events. “I really like exploring idioms and phrases native English speakers don’t even think twice about,” she says. “It’s fun, and I think it’s helpful for the students to be exposed to some of that.”
The relationships built in the process are also extremely valuable.
During a recent tutoring session, Reed sat alongside students as they read from a translation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame that was more accessible for English language learners. At various points they paused to discuss the events unfolding in the story, Reed occasionally standing at the classroom white board to dissect words and phrases from the story. During breaks, the students discuss experiences from their personal lives.
Learning a new language can be vulnerable work, but Reed has clearly fostered a culture that helps her students feel safe and develop confidence. “I really enjoy volunteering at Erie House,” says Reed. “We have fun, and I know the students are learning a lot.”
For more information on becoming a volunteer tutor or supporting the community literacy program, please contact Susana Ortiz at (312)432-2257.