Written by Betsy Abraham Wednesday, 08 January 2014 00:00
When Pilar Renteria came to America 21 years ago, her English was very limited. She could understand the language and speak it a little bit, but spoke mostly Spanish.
But now, thanks to the LIFE Lutheran Church’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program, Renteria can speak, read and write in English.
“I’ve been going for the past three years. It’s a very good program,” she says. “It’s very important and has helped me a lot.”
LIFE Lutheran Church, in Old Westbury, has been holding free ESL classes for the past four years, helping Westbury’s large native Hispanic population learn important language and cultural skills.
The classes started in 2010, shortly after Deacon Paulina Jansseen Mesloh started a Vacation Bible School at the church in an effort to expand the Hispanic ministry.
“I realized that the children were the main speakers in their homes,” Mesloh says. “They were the ones calling the doctors and teachers because the parents had no language skills. It was very important to me that a parent could be fully functional, and they couldn’t do that if they didn’t have the language.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Westbury had a 27.3 percent Hispanic or Latino population in 2010, and as of 2012, 43.1 percent of Westbury’s population spoke a language other than English at home. Realizing that many parents in Westbury lacked the communication skills they needed, Mesloh decided to start an ESL program which would give parents confidence to speak for their families.
“The most important thing is that parents can speak for their children and be an advocate for them, and have the language to do that,” said Mesloh who serves as the program director. “A child needs to know there is an adult in charge.”
Nassau Literacy, an organization that promotes literacy among adult learners, provided a curriculum and several certified teachers volunteered their time to help teach the Saturday morning classes, which started out with 15 students. The church then sent flyers about the classes to parents through the Westbury school district, and the program quickly boomed.
Now, the program has about 60 students ranging in age and English proficiency. There are two sessions every Saturday morning: one from 9 to 11 a.m. and one from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. which is specifically for adults with children. Mesloh notes the intergenerational aspect of the classes, as children will come to the classes with their parents and grandparents, and then go home and do homework together, reinforcing what they’ve learned throughout the week.
Young children can enjoy a youth group environment, where they do crafts and play games. Adults are in a more structured classroom setting where they learn reading and vocabulary, writing and grammar, listening and speaking, and accent reduction. There are
four levels. At the entry and beginning levels, students learn basic dialogue such as introductions, how to order from a menu, communicating simple needs, and idioms. At the intermediate and advanced levels, students learn how to express opinions, give detailed instructions and explanations, identify ideas from oral presentations, and use the appropriate language for situations such as job interviews and doctor’s office visits.
In addition to holding ESL classes, the program offers citizenship classes and holds yearly field trips to Old Westbury Gardens.
Mesloh noted that before the class, many of the students never ventured out of their homes or interacted with non-Spanish speakers. She encourages students to break out of that, advising them to go to English grocery stores and watch American television shows to pick up on the language and vernacular.
“We’re learning for integration, not segregation,” said Mesloh. “This program will help the community not be separated or fearful of one another. We want Hispanic people to come to this community and feel at home with American people.”
And this change all comes back to Mesloh’s original mission of equipping parents with the language skills necessary for daily life.
“Integration is very important to improve relationships between family and therefore the community. We want the kids to be in a household where parents are parents, and children don’t have complete autonomy to do whatever they want. Parents can go talk to a teacher or doctor without having a child be the interpreter,” said Mesloh.