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Bridges to the American dream

A retired banker and others volunteer to give the priceless gift of communication to immigrants and refugees.

Published February 14, 2004

CLEARWATER - She is a retired mortgage banker who has built roofs on houses for Habitat for Humanity.

She has driven cancer patients weakened by chemotherapy to doctor's appointments. She helps her daughter care for six foster children.

Now Barbara Elmquist is learning to teach English to immigrants who have heard horror stories about Americans who hate foreigners, so they try not to speak in public. To people who are terrified of being deported even if they are in the United States legally. To newcomers who are afraid of bus drivers because in their native countries, people who wear uniforms are there to kill you.

Elmquist and about a dozen other volunteers attended a United Methodist Cooperative Ministries workshop on teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages Tuesday at Trinity Presbyterian Church to learn to help people "living in the shadows," said their instructor, Marti Lane.

United Methodist Cooperative Ministries sought volunteers to teach English to refugees and immigrants. The tutors are asked to pay $35 to join the program. Those who complete all four sessions will receive a certificate from ProLiteracy America, a national organization that promotes literacy.

Elmquist thought she would be a good candidate. She speaks Spanish almost fluently, thanks to a year living in Mexico in the 1970s, and she has a degree in social work.

She brought along her daughter, Julie Hoffman, 27, who also has a degree in social work. It wasn't easy for Hoffman to attend the program; she has has foster children and a husband at home. But she made the time.

"We both like to volunteer," Elmquist said. "I like to do faith-based volunteering."

Lane, the director of Literacy Services for United Methodist Cooperative Ministries and a workshop trainer, said UMCM is an outreach ministry of the St. Petersburg District of the United Methodist Church, which provides social services in Pinellas and west Pasco counties.

She said several months ago, Trinity Presbyterian and Hope Presbyterian churches started ESOL tutoring programs. Skycrest United Methodist and New Growth CDC, a faith-based program at Jasmine Courts, a public housing complex on Tanglewood Drive, have been holding sessions for more than a year.

"At any given time we (deal with) 20 different languages: Vietnamese, Spanish, Cambodian, Afghan, Russian, Egyptian, Polish, Chinese and French," Lane said.

She said new arrivals range from professionals with advanced degrees from universities in their native countries to those with no formal education at all.

Sharon Moore, 47, of Clearwater is a member of Lane's class. To prepare herself for her new mission, she has been observing and helping during tutoring sessions at Jasmine for two weeks.

"All except one (student) I've worked with are college-educated," she said. "It's a funny feeling to be teaching them. I feel a high level of respect ... that they want to know the language. One middle age Vietnamese woman was trying to communicate with me. She was saying "Red, white and blue.' I couldn't figure out what she was trying to say. She was trying to say she wants to take a test. I said, "Do you want to be a U.S. citizen?' She jumped up and hugged me. She said, "You make me so happy!"'

Moore, who works as an administrative assistant, does not speak Arabic or any of the other languages she has encountered. Most volunteers speak only English and "in some ways, it's better that way," said Lane.

"It forces (the students) to speak English," she said.

Students are tutored once a week for one to two years. The course helps prepare them for adult education classes they may want to take in the future.

"Some Laotian women come from working the late shift at Halkey-Roberts in St. Petersburg, making plastic components used in medical devices," Lane said. "They are trying so hard."

Some students, especially those of Arabic descent, have felt discrimination from their tutors, however.

"It took four different tries to match a tutor with one man," said Lane. "A tutor would come, and not come back. They would say, "I'd rather not.' They didn't expand."

But for the most part, tutors genuinely want to help. Some end up bonding with their students. Sometimes, they become friends.

"It takes a lot of courage to move over here," said Moore.

- Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or

For information

If you would like to learn English or become a tutor, call United Methodist Cooperative Ministries at (727) 442-6881.

[Last modified February 14, 2004, 01:31:45]

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