Thursday, July 29, 2010

Highlight: Saturday women

We've recently asked volunteers in the CRESL program to tell a bit about what they do. Today's guest blogger is Elena Saenz, one of the facilitators of the Saturday morning class at Grace Apartments, and an ELA/ESL teacher in Denver Public Schools. The Saturday class started as somewhat of an experiment, and we all thought it would be temporary, but six years later, enthusiasm and participation are still strong.

The Saturday ESL for Refugee Women class was started about 5 to 6 years ago by Susan Renick, Melissa Nix and a few other people who were looking for a solution for the women who were unable to attend Emily Griffith’s ESL classes, but who also weren't thriving in the one-to-one tutoring program. The need was for specific help for the Somali Bantu women, as those were the refugees who were also the largest group at that time.

The class has since evolved to serve whichever groups of refugee women are currently living at Grace Apartments or in the surrounding community. At present, the women attending the class include the Burmese Karen and Karenni, Somali Bantu, as well as women from Burundi and Bhutan. We have learned to remain flexible since this makeup changes from year to year.

I got involved about four years ago. I was working with these women’s children as their ESL teacher at Whiteman Elementary in Denver and wanted to expand my knowledge of their culture and home life. Since then, I have become one of two lead “teachers.” Melissa Nix (Regis University) and I (Denver Public Schools) share the responsibilities along with a myriad of volunteers.

This is a free program and everyone who helps is a volunteer. Melissa and I make sure the community room at Grace is open every Saturday and that fresh fruit and vegetables are provided for the students (Melissa writes a grant that underwrites this expense, plus provides occasional materials). We don’t use a specific curriculum with the women as we never know who is going to come. We attempt to guide ourselves by the needs of the women and their individual English levels.

We meet most Saturdays. We start between 8:15 and 8:30 a.m. Most of the women arrive no later than 8:45. We break up into two major groups (beginner and intermediate/advanced). Volunteers work with a group, partners, or an individual. We have materials available, plus some volunteers bring their own things to work from. We work until about 9:45 and then stop to make sure that we can pass out fruit and veggies and put the room back in order before leaving.

The women are so appreciative of the time to practice or better their English, as well as for the food. The wonderful reception and gratitude by the students are two of the reasons why I have continued to work with them for so many years. For me, there is nothing more special in this world than spending time with a group of women who give more to me than I will ever be able to give to them.

Elena Saenz
Saturday ESL volunteer

If you would like to join the Saturday volunteers at Grace, please contact

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