DES MOINES, Iowa — A special group of students has come to Iowa from all over the world. Few arrived with much more than the clothes on their backs and most didn’t know a single word of English.
“You’re starting with a blank slate,” says teacher Sharon Johnson, “many of them are pre-literate so they don’t know how to read in their own language, so just learning the alphabet and numbers is where we start.”
Jonson’s classroom isn’t in a school. It’s in an office at a Des Moines apartment complex. “Here at Deer Ridge we have over 314 apartments and many, many refugees and immigrants who need to learn English,” explains Dr. Judy Conlin. She’s the executive director of the Iowa International Center. Last year the organization started taking ESL classes directly to the people who need them.
“They don’t drive, they don’t have the money to go to a class or pay for childcare,” says Conlin. “For example, one woman is a widow with four children, she’s from Somalia and she said, ‘Before this, how would I learn? I have to pay the mortgage, pay for food…how would I do anything else?’ It’s very sad.”
The program removes those barriers and the impact is incredible. The average assessment score has increased by 120 percent and many of the students have been able to find jobs. “It’s very rewarding,” Johnson says, “many of them haven’t been here very long.”
Charles Birama and his family came to the United States from Congo four months ago. He has five children and just got his first job. “This has helped me to read and write,” he says proudly.
The students are learning more than English. Life and job skills are also part of the program.
“I think it’s really challenging for them and it’s a struggle – the language, and many other things we take for granted,” says volunteer Karen Lanker. She and Brigitte Reynolds work with students one-on-one. “I try to give back,” says Reynolds – who is from Austria, ”I have been an ESL student at DMACC and I liked it and I could see how many students have problems learning English.” Conlin says volunteers are a critical resource. “Brigitte has walked the walk. She knows what it’s like to come to the United States and not be able to speak English and she’s just doing a beautiful job of helping others overcome those obstacles.”
The program creates a better community for all of us because these people want the same things we do. “It’s just incredible – their resilience, their courage, their desire to learn,” says Conlin, “as one young many said – I want to change my life, I want to make it better for my family, for my children.”
That young man is Charles, and he’s doing just that. “It’s like; I just get my job very soon, so I change my life because I see a new system.”
There is one other ESL site and the hope is to create more of them. The Iowa International Center is privately funded and always need donations and volunteers. If you’d like to get involved, visit the website: http://iowainternationalcenter.org/